Caught in the Crossfire
by Bruce McEwen, July 22, 2010
Everyone in a position to know says this is another banner year for the marijuana cultivation business, Mendocino County franchise.
Sheriff Allman says simply, “It's everywhere.”
And it's drawing people from everywhere.
Last year law enforcement grabbed young people from Italy, Bulgaria, Israel, China, Spain, Russia, and, of course, Mexico who had come to Mendocino County to grow weed. The foreign nationals brought an international flavor to an industry begun forty-five years ago out of old fashioned American ingenuity, back-to-the-land hippie botanists who went on to produce a product of such quality it has been in great demand ever since.
After last season's polyglot busts, Sheriff Allman joked about “setting up a United Nations office” at his Ukiah headquarters.
With ever more people getting into the marijuana business, the pot market has become glutted. Prices are down. But two thousand dollars a pound still looks good to people fighting the economic downturn with outdoor agriculture. The “Green Rush” is on, and it's been building for a decade now.
Tens of thousands of plants have already been seized this year and outdoor pot season has just started.
Indoor pot season, like pig hunting, is year-round. A deputy joked recently that “a lot of people have their kids sleeping on their living room floors because their bedrooms have been converted to indoor grows.”
All this dope, and the national perception that Mendocino County is Marijuana Country, has brought The Drug Enforcement Agency to Mendocino County in force. They're everywhere, under cover and above the covers, searching and sniffing about, looking to bust growers and drug dealers. And even if the feds aren't everywhere they like the dopers to think they are.
Mendocino County seems to have supplanted Humboldt as the fed's primary target.
Black is the color of the DEA. They wear black jump suits, drive black SUVs, and fly black helicopters. They had a whole squadron of little black choppers at the Ukiah airport a few weeks ago to train law enforcement personnel from all over in spotting and eradicating marijuana crops. The DEA also uses military choppers, and they had a big Blackhawk apparently working as flagship with the smaller choppers brought in for the training exercises.
Some of the little black choppers are still around, as is a big CH 46, the one with the twin rotors and a tailgate that you can drive a Hummer into. It seems to be the mothership. The CH 46 left the Ukiah airport early Friday morning, lumbering into the air like a mammoth cruise ship pulling out into San Francisco Bay from Pier 46. The pilot inflected the rotor blades, eased into the throttle and the big warship floated up and south over the runway, gathering speed and altitude, the crew chief standing at military parade rest on the open deck of its vast tailgate. It banked around over Highway 101 and headed north for the big grows, the innumerable marijuana plantations on federal land east of Willits, north of Covelo, the true wilds of the Emerald Triangle.
The BLM and US Forest Service are hiring combat veterans just back from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan for less lethal duty in the Mendocino marijuana wars. There's not a lot of jobs out there for young people just back from Mesopotamia, but these guys tend to have plenty of experience in searching out the poppy crops of Afghanistan.
Chasing pot farmers in outback Mendocino County is light duty after the Taliban.
Of course, all grows are illegal to the DEA, regardless of state or local statutes. The DEA's web site says, “Marijuana smoked is not medicine and it is not safe. DEA targets criminals engaged in cultivation and trafficking of marijuana, including the 12 states that have decriminalized marijuana use.”
The DEA trains its agents at Quantico, a Marine Corps base in Virginia. The CIA and FBI also train their officers there. The physical training for DEA agents is done under the supervision of Marine drill instructors, and the web page boasts that it's pretty intense.
Last week I saw a guy on the local MTA bus wearing a Marine Corps utility cover — which is what the Marines call a hat. He was dressed like a vagabond and smelled faintly of stale beer. But the women on the bus seemed quite taken with his clear eyes and fit physique. Vags don't work out much except for their elbows, and this suspiciously fit one was overheard saying he'd just come from Virginia. Maybe he was riding the MTA on recon, scoping out the area, maybe even making some useful contacts.
Oh, yeah, and paranoia is another industry byproduct. Especially at this time of year.
I call these guys RAMBOs, from an urban myth that the Regular Army and the Marines had a program where they used biological engineering and steroids to develop optimal troopers. Supposedly, they put computer chips in the brains of qualified vets, gave them massive doses of steroids and made remote-control supermen out of them with implants that would shoot meth into their bloodstream on demand.
The tinfoil hat people thought it was true.
Besides the DEA's Rambos, there's the National Guard Counter Drug Task Force, the Mendocino County Major Crimes Task Force, and the California Marijuana Eradication Task Force.
Their primary task?
Eradication of devil weed and the devils who grow it.
Especially in the Mendocino National Forest.
Growers, organized as armed syndicates — and they're not all Mexicans as the local rightwing claims — have had it all their way in America's least visited national forest for a decade now, and here comes the counter-attack.
Pot growers and their legions of strictly legal support staffs with their truck loads of irrigation hose, fertilizers, timers, netting, and everything else a remote pot enterprise might need, depart daily from Mendocino County's thriving garden supply businesses, head off to the hills. Many of these supply trucks drive east to Covelo and points north to irrigate marijuana out of the Middle Fork Eel River, the only reliable source of water in the summer time in the Mendocino National Forest.
Supervisor John Pinches declared last week, “We've lost our national forest. Forget all these other issues, let's take back our forest. It's out of hand. There's got to be a plan to take back the forest.”
To which a reader responded, “Hey, Pinches. In case you haven't noticed, the criminal timber syndicates, together with their government co-conspirators, destroyed 'our national forest' a long time ago.”
There are dark rumors about Tom Contreras, the Forest Service man in charge of the National Forest.
“Contreras has never done anything about the big grows out there because the Mexican gangs have gotten to him. He's Hispanic, a brother.” Or, “The cartels know where Contreras lives. They've threatened him and his family.”
That kind of thing. Rumor. Guilt by ethnicity.
A man who regularly hikes the Mendocino National Forest recommends road blocks in the summer months.
“Roadblocks at three key places would seriously disrupt grower supply lines,” he says. “All of them lead to the water of the Middle Fork Eel where the water is out there in the summer.”
This guy is also suspicious of the Forest Service.
“They aren't doing much of anything to keep the growers out, that's for sure. And these growers are like sherpas; young guys straight from Mexico. They can hike for miles with big loads. Most of the cops can hike maybe one mile with light loads — their lunches. The supervisors are having their August meeting in Covelo. So what? People will vent and that'll be the end of it. Do you know anyone who pays any attention to the supervisors?”
It takes fit young men to chase other fit young men, and if you're taking bets I'll bet on the fit federal young men in black jump suits and their little black choppers.
Meanwhile, a great many busts from last year are still going through the courts. They're usually heard during the late afternoon when the lawyers would rather be in the air-conditioned courtrooms than out golfing and fishing in our county's fish-free streams.
A recent case involved a father and son, Richard and Jamie Travers, who came to Mendocino County from Oregon and bought a little vacation property on Spy Rock Road outside of Laytonville, a place to bring the kids for the summer and maybe pay down the mortgage a little by growing some weed on it.
When Sgt. Bruce Smith of the Mendocino County Sheriff Department's year-round narco squad arrived on the Travers' place with a search warrant last August 24th, he found two kids, ages 9 and 12, and loaded guns all over the place, in plain view and hidden away. Smith and his raid team also found about 300 large marijuana plants, six to 12 feet tall, in the budding stage, and amateur lab equipment for making honey oil and other marijuana byproducts.
“The plants were very healthy,” Sgt. Smith said. “Dark green, well taken care of.”
When Smith entered the house, 12-year-old Canyon Travers was just coming out of the shower.
Deputy DA Brian Newman asked Smith, “Any firearms?”
The kid, it seems, had remained silent.
“A Glock 23 was tucked under a chair cushion, loaded, ready for immediate use,” Smith said.
There was also a .410 shotgun in the living room, a .22 pistol under the bed and a .357 Glock hidden under some clothes.
Judge Leonard LaCasse didn't like what he was hearing.
“Wait a minute,” said LaCasse. “This kid was just coming out of the shower and there was a loaded gun right there under the cushion?”
“Yes,” Smith answered.
“What would a person have to do to fire the Glock?” Newman asked.
“Just pull the trigger,” Smith answered.
“Wouldn't they have to do something with the safety catch?”
“There is no safety on a Glock,” Smith replied.
At this point Mr. Newman, deputy DA, asked the court for a holding order for child endangerment. He wanted Richard and Jamie Travers, dad and grand-dad, who were out of custody, arrested on the spot for putting the kids at risk.
Richard Travers' lawyer is Ann Moorman, recently elected (some might say anointed) to a judgeship herself.
The judge-elect objected.
Ms. Moorman had been laying down the law to Judge LaCasse. LaCasse is one of the few sitting judges not to have donated to Ms. Moorman's campaign for her own set of black robes.
Her Honor-elect told LaCasse it was too late for the DA to file additional charges on the Travers.
“He can file charges any time he wants,” the Judge-elected said.
Moorman said she hadn't been advised of it.
“Well, he can still file it,” LaCasse said.
There was also lots of ready cash stashed here and there on the Travers property, more than enough to pay Ms. Moorman's hefty fees. There was $11,000 in a laundry basket, $4,340 in the pickup, over $1,000 in Jamie Travers' wallet, and $1,892 in with some mail. Along with the random piles of cash there were a lot of expensive gadgets — iPhones, iPods, digital cameras, computers.
Ms. Moorman was trying to make a case that these items were not signs of wealth.
“I'm entitled to establish who had access to the property,” Ms. Moorman said, responding to DA Newman's objection.
“To a point,” LaCasse said. “And that point is rapidly approaching.”
“Okay, I'm done,” Ms. Moorman conceded.
Both Richard and Jamie Travers had previously been convicted of felonies in Lane County, Oregon, and a search of the property next to Richard Travers' property in Springfield, Oregon produced a quit claim deed for the Laytonville property hidden in an ammo can.
“I'm not sure where it was seized,” Mr. Newman said. “But it was related to Richard and Jamie Travers and co-conspirators in Oregon.”
Jamie Travers had a conviction for robbery on his rap sheet. He wasn't supposed to be armed. His lawyer was Robert Boyd, an aloof redheaded mouthpiece with an imperious manner.
Boyd, fastidiously buttoning his tweed jacket, rose and regarded Sgt. Smith with haughty disdain.
Boyd began, “Now, with regard to the Savage rifle taken from—”
“I didn't take a Savage rifle,” interrupted Sgt. Smith.
Boyd reacted with surprise and squinted down at the report on the table. Mr. Confident seemed confused. At length, he began again, “Now, about the fingerprints on the glass tubes used in making the honey oil. Is it not correct that there were multiple prints on the tubes?”
“That's correct,” Smith said. “Multiple prints of all the people involved in the case.”
Smith, it seems, was much better prepared than Mr. Confident was.
Ms. Moorman was looking through some pictures of mototcycles, pick-ups, a Marriott Hotel card, some AAA cards.
Off the evidence, the Travers family was living well.
Ms. Moorman wanted to change the subject to the generators found on the property. But Newman said it was irrelevant because the charges had nothing to do with the generators.
Judge LaCasse agreed.
There are probably more generators per capita on Spy Rock Road than any neighborhood in the United States. Finding a generator up there is like finding a dandelion in your lawn.
“The court must remember…” Moorman began, addressing Judge LaCasse in the patronizing tones of a law school professor lecturing a first-year student.
“There is no relevance!” LaCasse declared, banging his fist.
Ms. Moorman will be replacing LaCasse on the Mendo bench. LaCasse is retiring. There's clearly some high-voltage tension between the two magistrates. LaCasse is viewed by Mendocino County's Warm Wonderfuls as a conservative. The Warm Wonderfuls, of course, regard themselves as, well, comprehensively wonderful. And they stick together, as Moorman's recent election proves.
Both of the Travers were said to be felons in possession of firearms. They weren't supposed to have .410 shotguns and .22 rifles, let alone combat weapons like Glocks, two of them, a Glock model 23, and a Glock chambered for .357 Magnum rounds, probably the big one, the Model 40.
Ms. Moorman asked, “Aren't all Glock magazines interchangeable?”
“No,” Smith answered.
In the other bedroom at the Villa Travers, Smith said he found “a backpack with US currency in it, and a Glock .357, loaded. It was under some clothing. And a Ruger 10-.22 rifle, loaded.”
“Did you send them out for fingerprints,” Boyd asked.
“And there were no fingerprints on any of the weapons?”
“They haven't come back yet,” Smith replied.
I wanted to see if the Travers got remanded for child endangerment, but LaCasse was getting exasperated and called a recess just when I had to catch my bus for Boonville, where the people are certainly wonderful but not as warm about it as Ms. Moorman and Friends are in Ukiah.
Mendocino County, like the rest of America, is awash in guns, and convicted felons like the Travers seem to have no trouble obtaining them.
There lots of guns out there, and with the cops threatening to quit for lack of money to pay them, the judges are reluctant to return any seized firearms, even to that part of the gun toting populace that plays by the rules.
Judge Ron Brown seems especially reluctant to see any seized guns returned, because late last week, attorney Michael Shambrook, a Ukiah lawyer with a British accent, was trying to get some seized firearms released. Apparently, the guns belonged to a third party who had nothing to do with the bust that got them seized and wanted them back. But Judge Brown had some difficulties with the request. Attorney Keith Faulder, who speaks fluent American, offered to translate Mr. Shambrook's High English pleadings.
“Your honor,” Faulder said, “he's only asking for a release to the Sheriff, not a court order to return the firearms.” Faulder explained the process to Brown, saying, “The Sheriff will then determine who the legal owners are and only release them to the parties they are registered to.”
Judge Brown wasn't persuaded. He put his right hand on a legal tome like he was about to take an oath, closed the case file with his other hand, and said he needed time to satisfy his curiosity on the subject.
Brown called the next case. Again, it also involved clients of Mr. Shambrook trying to get their guns back.
And Brown called another case, the third in a row having to do with getting guns back.
Maybe it's true. Maybe only cops and crooks have guns.