July 30, 2013

Man pleads guilty in massive Maine pot operation

Moises Soto allegedly helped run a marijuana field for Haynes Timberland, a local timber and development company that owns the land.

The Associated Press and staff reports

BANGOR — A Mexican man accused of overseeing a large marijuana-growing operation using migrant workers in the wilderness of eastern Maine pleaded guilty to federal charges on Tuesday.

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Some of the nearly 3,000 marijuana plants found on remote plots in Washington County are shown after a drug raid in 2009. Five people were indicted after the second-largest pot seizure in state history.

Courtesy of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency

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Moises Soto, 53, of Nuevo Leon, Mexico, was one of five men and a timber company indicted in September on charges stemming from a 2009 raid in which drug agents uprooted nearly 3,000 marijuana plants in Township 37 in Washington County.

Under an agreement with prosecutors, Soto pleaded guilty to conspiracy to grow more than 1,000 marijuana plants and to one count of harboring a worker who entered the country illegally. Soto, who has been detained since his arrest at the Texas border in March, can appeal his sentence if it exceeds four years in prison.

Defense lawyer Hunter Tzovarras said Tuesday that his client pleaded guilty to put the matter behind him.

"He wanted to take responsibility for his role and didn't see any reason to push the issue to trial," Tzovarras said. "He wants to get this over and put it behind him."

The other defendants are due to stand trial in January, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel Casey.

Named in the indictment were Haynes Timberland Inc., the West Enfield-based company that owns land where the marijuana was grown, and several individuals, including Haynes shareholder Malcolm French.

The defendants were accused of running a sophisticated operation in which marijuana was grown and stored in a fenced compound with the help of migrant workers. Soto, for his part, was a U.S. citizen who became familiar with Maine as a seasonal blueberry worker, Tzovarras said.

People involved in the operation set fire to buildings used as dormitories and fled after a police plane flew over the site in 2009.

The indictment said the government planned to seek forfeiture of Haynes' Timberland and its assets, including land in Township 37. If convicted, the individuals charged in the case could face lengthy sentences and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

The Haynes name is well known in Maine's billion-dollar forest products industry, thanks to the late Herbert C. Haynes Sr., who built a diversified forest products company that bought, sold, managed and developed large tracts of land.

Haynes Timberland's indictment on felony drug-manufacturing charges created a stir due, in part, to confusion over the relationship between Haynes Timberland and the better-known H.C. Haynes Inc.

Few people were willing to talk openly about the unusual, high-stakes case for an extensive 2012 Press Herald story on the case. Attorneys for the defendants, representatives from H.C. Haynes Inc. and the Maine Forest Products Association – an industry trade group – did not return phone messages. Doug Denico, director of the Maine Forest Service, declined to comment. And state and federal law enforcement officials declined to discuss the indictment.

H.C. Haynes Inc. and its leaders are not named in the federal indictment. But documents show that while Haynes Timberland and H.C. Haynes Inc. are entirely separate corporate entities, they share more than a name.

Corporate filings with the Maine Secretary of State's Office show that Barbara French – daughter of Herbert Haynes and wife of the indicted Malcolm French – was Haynes Timberland's president and treasurer as recently as April 2012.

French also works in the office of H.C. Haynes Inc., according to the company's website. Neither H.C. Haynes Inc. nor Barbara French were named in the indictment or public court documents relating to the case.

Additionally, public records show that the two companies are linked by a myriad of deals in which land, timber rights, mortgages and easements pass between them.

One deal stands out. In June 2004, H.C. Haynes Inc. appears to have provided $4.1 million to Haynes Timberland to buy 22,088 acres in Township 37 from International Paper Co., according to documents on file with the Washington County Registry of Deeds.

Five years later, a tip would lead law enforcement officers to nearly 3,000 marijuana plants growing in a remote corner of that parcel. Now the same tract, encompassing most of Township 37, could wind up in federal ownership if prosecutors win their case.

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