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Emerald Triangle Argonauts & Ecotopian Avatars

Is everything as hollow as it sounds…?

— Bob Dylan, ‘Trying To Get To Heaven

The amazing acoustic effect is easy to explain on scientific grounds: It is due to the shape of the gallery and the conducting power of the rock. There are a good many examples of this propagation of sounds which cannot be heard in the intervening space. The phenomenon has been observed in various places, including the Whispering Gallery at St Paul’s in London, and especially in those curious caves near Syracuse in Sicily, of which the most remarkable is called the Ear of Dionysius.

— Jules Verne, ‘Journey To The Center of the Earth

A curious cave north of Laytonville, off Spy Rock Road, must have held an “amazing acoustic effect” as the Special Agents of our trusty local Drug Task Force began tapping at and around a hidden door masquerading as a set of shelves. Although the officers had already searched the area, they decided to take a closer look at the shelves when a man suddenly appeared who hadn't been there the first time around. The shelves had become Mr. Todd Wagner.

Once the entrance to the cave was discovered, Special Agent Christopher Partlow climbed down into where he found the defendant, Edgar Pelen, and four other “individuals” and a vast cache of marijuana, 800 pounds of which was nicely trimmed and neatly packaged in turkey bags, ready for market. The 800 pounds was Agent Partlow's original estimate, and too low by nearly half.

Officer Partlow, who was assigned to the Task Force from the CHP some two years ago, testified that there was in fact more than 1500 pounds of marijuana in the underground room. The  above ground property, he said, was large, over several hundred acres, with several buildings, some trailers, and a shop. The entry to the underground “compartment,” as he called it, was found in the shop. A vehicle registered to Mr. Pelen and other indicia found in a trailer on the property had qualified Pelen as the defendant in the case.

Mr. Wagner, the man who had magically materialized at the secret entrance to the cannabis bunker, was listed as co-owner of the property.


Deputy DA Joshua Rosenfeld asked Officer Partlow what Mr. Pelen was doing when Parlow had met Pelen underground.

“He was processing marijuana, sitting in a chair with scissors with processed marijuana on one side and unprocessed on the other. He wasn’t actually trimming when I entered the room, but he had been.”

“Were there any firearms present?”

“Yes. There was a shotgun near the entrance to the compartment — or room — and two .22 rifles in a nearby greenhouse.”

“Was there any indicia that the defendant lived on the property?”

“Yes. A Toyota Corolla on the property was registered to him and other indicia was found in one of the trailers.”

Migrant pharm workers, those Argonauts of the Emerald Triangle generally called trimmers, have not, as a rule, been prosecuted for cultivation and possession for sale in marijuana busts since the administration of former DA Meredith Lintott. It was important to establish that Mr. Pelen was a principal, the boss man, not merely a transient day laborer working for wages. The incriminating "indicia" (paperwork) found in the trailer was never elaborated on in court, but it was only a preliminary hearing, not a trial, and the burden of proof was somewhat lower, merely requiring a reasonable suspicion that Pelen owned the place and ran the pharm. 

Defense Attorney Albert Kubanis wanted Officer Partlow to be more specific, wanted to see if there was harder evidence that the property and business belonged to Mr. Pelen. After all, there were several residences on the property, and what paperwork was it exactly that linked Pelen to ownership? 

Officer Partlow's answers seemed to frustrate defense attorney Kubanis who asked they be stricken from the record.

“How many residences were searched?”

“Three, I believe.”

“How many RVs were searched?”

“At least two.”

“In the trailer, the RV where you say you found indicia of my client having lived there — was there any bedding?”

“You could tell he’d been sleeping there.”

“Objection — move to strike — that’s not what I asked.”


“There was a bed, as I recall.”

“Where was Mr. Pelen?”

“He was in the underground room, the compartment under the shop.”

“Were there others in the room?”

“Yes, four others.”

“Were they Hispanic?”

“Objection,” Rosenfeld said. “Relevance.”

The defendant, Mr. Pelen, was being assisted by Timothy Baird, the court’s dapper Spanish language interpreter. Mr. Kubanis — a Libertarian WASP right down to the requisite bowtie — said he had a right to know about the others in the cavern with his client.

Judge Ann Moorman, after pausing momentarily over the PC niceties said, “I don’t believe their ethnicity is relevant. Sustained.”

“Did you observe any of the others trimming marijuana?”

“I believe they’d been stopped by my entering the room.”

One would think.

“Objection — non-responsive,” Kubanis said. “Move to strike.”

Moorman said, “Sustained. What did you see them doing?”

“They were seated, looking at me.”

Four Mexicans and a Spaniard trimming dope in an underground bunker deep in the NorCal wilderness and suddenly a cop appears? Yeah, they'd all probably take a look.

“Is the answer stricken from the record?” Kubanis asked the judge.

“Yes, Mr. Kubanis. You may proceed.”

“You say they had implements for trimming. Can you describe these implements?”

“Yes. They had scissors, and I don’t recall exactly whether they were seated at a table or had trays on their laps, but there was processed marijuana on one side of them and unprocessed stems and branches of marijuana on the other side.”

“And this was around 4:00 in the afternoon?”

“No, I believe it was 9:20 in the morning.”

“Did you see a Susan Packard?”

“Yes, she was in a residence to the west of the shop.”

“Was there a Todd Wagner?”

“Not at first.”

“Where was he?”

“He appeared near the entrance to the underground room, in an area that had already been searched.”

Wagner & Packard
Wagner & Packard

We all knew the growers, the landowners, Packard and Wagner, were the white people, the Hispanics were trimmers, and that Pelen, the lead trimmer and apparent crew chief, was going to take the fall, although 1500 pounds of pot couldn’t possibly have been grown on the property without Packard’s and Wagner’s knowledge — and that Wagner, who seems to have also been in the cave supervising the trimmers, had heard the Task Force arrive, had waited until the coast was clear above to climb out of the cave so as to disassociate himself from the underground labor.

“So he may have come from this underground room, since you didn’t see him initially?”

“It’s possible; he may have, yes.”

In other words: Prosecution could never prove beyond a reasonable doubt they had busted a gringo grow so they decided to pin it on Pelen, the unfortunate trimmer who had driven his vehicle to the grow site — probably giving a lift to the other trimmers, the Hispanics whose ethnicity was ruled irrelevant — and the poor fellow may have slept over a night or two in an old motor home parked on the property so, golly, he could be The Principal. And if it was a Mexican operation, better yet. That fit with a prevalent Northcoast myth that big grows are the work of Hispanic cartels, not third generation flower children, and that the trust-fund types who hold the deeds on a lot of dope properties can go on claiming they'd simply leased or rented their land and had no idea what their tenants were doing.

“Did you ask Mr. Wagner where he’d been?”

“He declined to give any answers.”

“Of the 800 pounds you mention being found in the underground cavern — how much was processed?”

“Wait a sec, lemme add it up… [after a minute or two]: “Approximately… 1500 pounds; and there was 410 pounds of shake.”

“Was there a CONEX searched as well?”

“What’s a CONEX?,” Judge Moorman asked.

“It’s one of those big metal boxes that come on trains, ships and what-have-you,” Kubanis said.

“It’s a shipping container,” Partlow added.

“Objection — move to strike!”

“I know what a shipping container is — thank you for the clarification, Officer Partlow. Your objection is overruled, Mr. Kubanis.”

“Was the shotgun loaded?”


“Was there any ammunition nearby?”

“No, not that I recall.”

Of course not. The gun was there to intimidate the trimmers — as they filed into the work hole. And the shells would have been in Wagner’s pocket, so a trimmer couldn’t grab the gun and turn it on the real principals, Wagner and Packard, both of whom had access to the guns in the greenhouse while the trimmers were locked up down in their (possible) tomb.

“What about the two .22s in the greenhouse? Were they loaded?”

“One of them was; not the other.”

“Now, this property is quite a ways off Spy Rock Road, is it not?”

“Yes, a few miles.”

“Did you have any conversation with my client?”

“Not that I recall.”

“Was he searched?”

“Not in my presence.”

“Any currency found on him?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“How far was the shotgun from the entrance to the subterranean cavern?”

“About 15 feet.”

“And how far away was the greenhouse where you found the .22's?”

“About a 100 yards.”

“Really. That far? A football field? Your honor, I don’t believe the weapons were within sufficient proximity to show that my client, as a principal, was armed.”

“Well,” prosecutor Rosenfeld replied, “We have a very large operation here and three firearms. I have a hard time believing that they were there by chance.”

“Yes,” Moorman seconded. “That’s what I was thinking. So, for purposes of the prelim, I’m gonna hold Mr. Pelen to answer on Count One, cultivation; and Count Two, possession for sale; and I’ll find the Special Allegation of the firearms for purposes of protection of the grow to be true. We’ll have Mr. Pelen back in court on January 12th for arraignment on the information and proceed from there.

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