March 10, 1968
unsettled

A woman walks past the Eastport house that Don Gellers called home when he represented the Passamaquoddys in the 1960s. Gellers was arrested here in 1968, right after filing a $150 million land claims suit for the tribe, on charges of “constructive possession” of marijuana cigarettes. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Having filed the Passamaquoddy’s unprecedented land claims suit against Massachusetts and by extension Maine, the tribe’s attorney Don Gellers returned home to Eastport, arriving the evening of March 10.

Inside, he expected to find his current house guest, Al Cox, perhaps the only black man in Washington County, whose rental home’s furnace had failed during the winter.

But alongside Cox in the living room, towering over Gellers, was Danny Bassett – whose estranged wife had left him and was intending to marry Gellers – as well as a man he’d never seen before. Danny introduced the man as Larry Burke, a Boston-based gangster affiliated with the notorious and deadly Patriarca crime family.

“That’s what greeted me when I came home,” Gellers recalls. “Who knows how long they’d been in the house and what they’d been doing.”

In fact, they’d been coming and going out of the house for several days, allegedly terrorizing Cox. According to Gellers, Bassett was having sex with a girlfriend in his bed.

The purported Mafioso said he had a traffic summons he needed advice on. Bassett dropped ominously that the wise guy had once shot a man in a parking lot on little provocation. Bassett also wanted Gellers to give him marijuana and some travel money to take a trip to New Brunswick. Gellers took him to his office and wrote him a check for $100. They talked about the situation with Annabelle and the police assault case against both of the Bassetts, whom Gellers was defending in court.

Bassett later said Gellers rolled him seven marijuana cigarettes; Gellers says that while he used marijuana, he didn’t have any in the house that day.

Bassett and Burke left about midnight, but they were back the next afternoon, again seeking dope. They would claim Gellers turned to Cox and said “roll Danny six cigarettes.” Gellers went to his office to place a call to the Attorney General’s Office in connection with the police assault case.

Meanwhile, the two visitors would claim, Cox went upstairs and returned with six joints. Bassett lit one up.

The Mafioso – in reality state police Detective W. Lawrence Hall – charged into Gellers’ office, pointing a gun, and placed him under arrest. Hall, waving his gun around, radioed to a squad of state police officers waiting nearby saying, according to Gellers, “You’d better come in. The situation’s falling apart.” Danny Bassett burst into the office ahead of them, grinning and smoking his joint. “No one bothered him about it,” Gellers noted.

(Hall, now 80, recalls having his gun out during the arrest, but says he doesn’t remember Bassett smoking a joint. Hall was eager to be helpful, but his memories of the Gellers investigation are fragmentary as a result of four strokes.)

Gellers called Press Herald reporter William Williamson right then and there after somehow convincing Hall he had the right to do so. The reporter recalled “an almost incoherent conversation” during which the distraught attorney yelled at the arresting officer to stop pointing his gun at him. “Isn’t there something you can do?” Gellers kept repeating.

“For as long as I knew him, Gellers had an obsessive and distorted belief in the power of the press,” Williamson would recall. “This time was no different.”

Gellers and Cox were handcuffed and dragged into waiting cruisers. At a command post set up in a Calais hotel to oversee the operation, Assistant Attorney General John Kelly got the word that the arrest had gone down. He was waiting at the courthouse when Gellers was dragged in. Also at the command post for this routine pot bust were at least five policemen including the commanding officer of the State Police’s Bureau of State Identification, Lt. Emery R. Jordan, and Lt. Charles R. Bruton, who was appointed head of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation shortly thereafter.

Since Hall hadn’t seen Gellers in possession of marijuana, the attorney would ultimately be charged with “constructive possession,” based on the police detective’s allegation that Cox had gotten the six joints from the pocket of Gellers’ jacket.

Today, Hall says he would never have planted evidence, but that Bassett and other Indians he was working with on the operation had access to the house for several days, and were visiting it without his supervision. He also agrees that it is unusual to have committed such extensive resources – including what he says were several weeks of his time embedded with Bassett – to make a minor marijuana bust.

“They just said, ‘get this guy out of here,’ they didn’t really say why,” Hall recalls of his orders from his superiors. “It had to do with drugs, but it was just marijuana. I mean today, who even thinks about it?”

Possession of such a small quantity of pot has since been decriminalized and can be legally purchased in Maine for medical purposes. Even in 1968, Maine lawmakers had decided that possession shouldn’t be a felony and had made it a misdemeanor offense earlier that legislative session.

But there was a catch. The new law was subject to legal challenges, so courts could technically continue to convict people under the outgoing felony statute. Gellers, to his shock, found himself facing two to four years in prison and automatic disbarment.

Letters found by the Press Herald at the Maine State Archives reveal the extraordinary efforts taken by state prosecutors to ensure Gellers faced felony charges as they prepared the case for trial.

Alarmed that some marijuana offenders were being charged under the misdemeanor statute, the Attorney General’s Office ordered all county attorneys to prosecute under the old felony law. Attorney General James Erwin met with Chief Justice Robert Williamson to discuss the “apparent misconduct by District Court Judges” who observed the newer, more lenient law.

Taking no chances, prosecution of Gellers’ routine marijuana case was conducted by the head of the criminal division of the Attorney General’s Office, Richard Cohen, assisted by Kelly, both of whom drove to Machias for that purpose.

To nobody’s surprise, a Washington County jury found him guilty the following March.

At final sentencing in May 1969, Judge William Silsby sounded apologetic. “I have given you the minimum sentence that I could impose under the law as it is written in the statutes of this state,” he said. “If your age had been younger, I would not have been obliged to send you to State Prison” instead of the men’s reformatory. “I have no other choice.”

He was given a two- to four-year sentence.

Gellers posted bail and then was declared indigent by the court.

By this time, Danny Bassett had pleaded guilty in the police stop assault case. He had been given a suspended sentence and released without so much as a fine. As Gellers was preparing the appeal of his own charges in the summer of 1969, Bassett got into a quarrel with unarmed tribal constable Percy Moore and shot and killed him with a bolt-action rifle. The state prosecutor – none other than Richard Cohen – agreed to his request to have his murder trial conducted without a jury.

The judge found him innocent by reason of self-defense. Many on the reservations believed Bassett got away with both crimes as part of a deal he had made with prosecutors to help them get rid of Gellers.

“The tribe was in shock because here we had somebody who was legally going to protect our rights and the state just takes him out,” says tribal historian Donald Soctomah. “People were pretty nervous – what were they going to do next, attack us? They were the law and could do anything they want.”

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Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

cwoodard@pressherald.com

 

Coming next:

The conspiracy unveiled