Thursday, April 17, 2014
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.
Some of the nearly 3,000 marijuana plants found on remote plots in Washington County are shown after a drug raid in 2009.
Courtesy of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency
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.
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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.
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