The original tip that led to the discovery of the most sophisticated drug operation in Maine’s history came into the Maine State Police’s website on Sept. 22, 2008.

The tipster was willing to name names, but hid his own for fear of retaliation.

Malcolm French and Kendall Chase, the tipster claimed, were running a massive marijuana-growing operation near a camp in Lagrange, in Penobscot County, and at a site in the woods of Township 37, near Horse Lake in Washington County.

Both were well-known businessmen. French was the head of Haynes Timberland, a logging firm and development company. Chase ran a trucking company in Bradford.

On Oct. 9, the tipster said he had seen people pulling tarps loaded with marijuana through the wooded area in Washington County. Two months later, the man had seen French and others hauling plastic totes full of marijuana from the camp in Lagrange. The operation, the tipster said, had been active for years, but the plants were heavily camouflaged on a rural piece of private land where few would go.

It took one year before drug agents acted on that first tip and raided the site. It took three more years before suspects were indicted by a federal grand jury on drug trafficking and conspiracy charges.

On Wednesday, three of them – French, 52, Chase, 57, and Rodney Russell, 50, of South Thomaston – will finally go before a judge in U.S. District Court in Bangor. The joint trial is expected to last several weeks and feature heavyweight defense attorneys from across the state, squaring off against Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel Casey and his team.

The legal battle comes at a time when Mainers are debating whether marijuana should be legalized and whether it makes sense for law enforcement to spend time and resources prosecuting growers.

The Washington County operation is among the biggest marijuana busts in state history. When police raided the site on Sept. 22, 2009, they found about 3,000 plants that were so well-cultivated that the value was estimated at $9 million. At the time, Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Director Roy McKinney said he’d never seen an operation that organized.

Many details of the drug operation – such as how the men charged knew each other and where the marijuana went once it was processed – have not been revealed, but could come out at trial.

However, documents filed in federal court describe the operation in great detail. Those documents allege that all of the information from the anonymous tips proved to be true.

And more.

• • • • • • • •

None of the lawyers for the defendants would talk specifically about the case. Casey also declined an interview.

Court documents, however, offer insight into the operation and the police investigation.

There were signs that French and Chase were linked to illegal drugs long before state police received the tips in 2008.

In 2003, Chase was arrested on suspicion of marijuana trafficking related to a growing operation in Danforth, near the Canadian border in northern Washington County.

Drug agents investigated the remote area on a tip about an illegal grow. While they were there, Chase emerged from the woods with a large bag slung over his shoulder. When police confronted him, he dropped the bag and ran. Inside were several pounds of recently harvested marijuana.

An all-terrain vehicle parked at the site was traced back to Chase. Police got a warrant to search his home in East Grand Lake and found more marijuana and evidence of an extensive growing operation.

Chase eventually turned himself in. He was convicted several months later and sentenced to 18 months in prison, but served only 30 days. The rest of his sentence was suspended.

Court documents filed in the current case reveal that French owned the land in Danforth, but was never charged in that case.

In 2007, drug enforcement agents investigated a report of 70 bags of marijuana stolen from a camp in Lagrange. A suspect in the theft told police he had heard that a large amount of pot was stored there.

The camp was owned by French. Again, he was not investigated or charged.

It wasn’t until two years later that drug agents connected the camp in Lagrange to the massive swath of land in Washington County that French owned.

When asked whether marijuana growing operations are a priority for drug agents, McKinney said his agency isn’t interested in low-level marijuana users but won’t ignore massive operations.

“If it’s a felony-level offense, we’re going to pursue it. Period,” he said.

• • • • • • • •

In September 2009, with a year’s worth of tips, drug agents finally decided to search French’s land for evidence of illegal drug cultivation. McKinney said he couldn’t comment on the delay, but the MDEA has finite resources.

Robert Carter of the Maine Warden Service, known to most as Wayde, was the first to offer to search. He knew that the terrain was accessible only by off-road vehicles and that the land was surrounded on all sides by chain link fence topped with barbed wire. He also knew there were at least three entrance gates that were often closed.

Carter and three other wardens went to the site on Sept. 21, 2009, riding state-issued ATVs and wearing full uniforms. They approached one of the gates and found it open.

Before they could enter, French approached on his own ATV. He told the wardens they could not be on his property without a warrant. Carter noticed that French was shaking and appeared nervous, according to court documents.

The wardens didn’t have a search warrant and turned back. French then closed the gate and padlocked it.

Before he left, French pulled up next to the wardens and said, “It’s a nice day for a ride, isn’t it boys,” according to an affidavit from one of the agents.

Still suspicious, the wardens circled the property on their ATVs, looking for another entrance.

At a spot near Stud Mill Road, where a gas pipeline cuts across the land, they found two trucks parked near a camp. Not wanting to alert anyone who might be inside, the wardens left.

The next day, Carter secured an aircraft from the U.S. Border Patrol office in Princeton. They flew over the site and saw what looked like a massive field of marijuana.

But they needed a closer look. A Border Patrol helicopter was brought in to fly over.

They confirmed the marijuana plants and saw something else. A building tucked in among the trees, on fire.

• • • • • • • •

Carter called dispatchers to send fire crews, but he and others had already seen enough to convince them they had to secure the site.

They found an ATV path that led them to the burning building. Just past it were six two-story buildings, all connected and covered with tarps. Two of them had burned to the ground and a third was fire-damaged but still intact. Behind the buildings were the plants – rows and rows of them.

Inside one of the untouched buildings, wardens found a propane heater that they determined was used to dry marijuana.

While wardens were on the property, French was stopped trying to leave the area in his truck. He told a drug agent that he didn’t know why police were on his property. He was asked about the marijuana and said he had property all over the place and had always dealt with people surreptitiously growing on his land.

Was the marijuana his? It was not, French said.

The agent asked to search French’s truck. He consented.

Nothing was found during that search, but French’s phone rang the entire time. The agent asked if he could look at French’s phone. French refused and was told he could leave.

Officers from several law enforcement agencies spent the night at the scene, until a search warrant could be issued.

The search warrant was extensive. It encompassed everything on the compound, including all the buildings and any vehicles that were still parked there.

A separate search warrant was granted for a home in Enfield owned by French and his wife, Barbara.

Inside the home, agents found vacuum sealing machines, small bags of marijuana buds, propane tanks that matched the ones found at the grow site, and records indicating that French had recently bought pallets of soil.

A box that had contained the propane heaters had a label with French’s name and address.

Extensive surveillance equipment was found at the grow site. Some of the buildings had bunks and a kitchen, evidence that people had been living there.

• • • • • • • •

Outdoor marijuana operations are hardly new, especially in Maine. In a largely rural state, large tracts of land often sit unchecked by authorities, and marijuana can be grown largely unnoticed.

This past September, Richard Kuhaneck of Enfield was arrested after an investigation led to the discovery of more than 4,100 plants in his basement. Those plants were much smaller and not as valuable as those in the Washington County operation.

In 1997, drug agents seized more than 3,200 plants growing outdoors in a rural area of Somerset County.

But the sophistication of the operation in Township 37 is still unrivaled, McKinney said, citing how well it was organized, the lengths the operators went to conceal the crop and the buildings on site to house round-the-clock workers.

A search of one of the buildings produced an envelope with two new names: Moises Soto, 53, and Rodney Russell.

Soto, originally from Mexico, was a naturalized citizen whose only contact with law enforcement was in 1989, when he was found in possession of 3.5 grams of marijuana.

Russell, of South Thomaston, had been employed by French beginning in 2007, according to court documents.

• • • • • • • •

Although investigators could link two more names to the elaborate marijuana operation, they didn’t know the full extent of the alleged conspiracy until they found Martin Roblero.

Roblero agreed to tell prosecutors what he knew in exchange for immunity.

He was a 22-year-old migrant worker who came to Maine illegally to pick blueberries in 2009 but ended up tending marijuana in Township 37, along with several undocumented immigrants who joined him. McKinney said he could not remember another operation that relied on undocumented immigrants for cultivation.

Roblero told police about the buildings on the site, including two dorm-style structures where he and others slept. He told them how he kept rabbits and other wildlife away from the plants and trimmed away dead leaves.

He told them the men in charge were Ken and Malcolm, identified as Kendall Chase and Malcolm French. Also mentioned was Rod, identified as Rodney Russell, and someone named Scott, later identified as Scott MacPherson of Wesley.

When the Border Patrol helicopter buzzed overhead on Sept. 22, 2009, Roblero and the others did as they had been instructed: They ran.

Roblero had been warned that French was a “wealthy and powerful man and if they were ever caught by the authorities, he should not give Malcolm’s name because bad things could happen.”

The day after he fled, Roblero was picked up in a van by a man he didn’t know. The man gave him food and clothes and drove him to a warehouse full of boxes of clothing. He stayed there for two days.

Roblero and the others were then driven to New York. He eventually ended up in Indiana.

Police found him only because he was being held on sexual assault charges in that state. His DNA was in a national database.

And it matched DNA found by drug agents at the scene in Maine.

• • • • • • • •

It took a federal grand jury three full years to hand up indictments. The case has progressed slowly through the court system since.

Roblero, after his testimony was secured, was deported to Mexico.

Soto pleaded guilty in late July to one count of drug conspiracy and one count of harboring illegal aliens. He awaits sentencing and is expected to be a key witness for the prosecution.

Another man who was indicted in connection with the operation, Robert Berg, 50, of Dexter, is scheduled to plead guilty on Tuesday, right before the trial begins. His agreement says that his involvement began in 2009 but he had no knowledge that he was aiding a criminal operation. Berg likely will not testify in the trial; his name is not on the government’s witness list.

One witness who will testify for the prosecution is Winston McTague, 48, of Newport, according to a brief filed Dec. 31 by Casey, the prosecutor. McTague worked for French and Chase in 2005 and 2006 on a similar marijuana-growing operation.

It was McTague who tipped off authorities back in 2008. He is expected to testify that French was the financial backer and landowner, and Chase was the “brains” of the operation, Casey wrote in his brief.

Also on the witness list is Fai Littman, who will testify that he bought multiple pounds of marijuana from Russell and French, and other migrant workers.

MacPherson, who was named in court documents in connection with the operation but never charged, committed suicide in February 2011, days before he was supposed to testify before the grand jury.

French reportedly tried to take his own life as well. He was free on bail in March and staying at his mother’s home in West Enfield when emergency personnel responded to a 911 call from his mother, who said her son had hanged himself and was not breathing.

French was revived by his wife. When an ambulance crew and sheriff’s deputies arrived, all three said French had fallen down the stairs. Deputies, however, saw what appeared to be a rope mark around his neck. French was ordered to get psychiatric counseling.

Chase and Russell also have been free on bail since their indictment in 2012.

The marijuana growing operation in Washington County is now defunct. The 22,000 acres are in limbo. The land is owned by French’s company, Haynes Timberland, which also is a defendant in the case.

If the company is successfully prosecuted, the federal government likely will take ownership of the property.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell