September 29, 2012

Documents show path that led to massive Maine pot bust

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Federal documents made public Friday help to explain how drug agents came to charge the owner of a forest products company in connection with a major marijuana growing operation in Washington County.

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Five people and a Maine timber company have been indicted on federal charges for their connection with a large marijuana growing operation that was uncovered in Washington County in 2009.

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They also suggest that the case was affected when a witness committed suicide days before he was to testify before a grand jury.

Malcolm French, owner of Haynes Timberland, is charged in the federal case along with Robert Berg, Kendall Chase, Rodney Russell and one unnamed person. The government has moved to seize property owned by Haynes Timberland.

Drug agents say that DNA collected at the site of the marijuana operation in Township 37 was matched to a Mexican man who was in this country illegally and serving prison time for molesting a child.

After the government granted immunity to the man on the drug charges, he told investigators about the elaborate operation, which had 3,000 mature plants when police raided it on Sept. 22, 2009. The plants were valued at $8 million to $9 million.

The documents unsealed Friday support the government's request for DNA samples from French and Russell.

The documents, dated Jan. 31, sought to compel French and Russell to allow their cheeks to be swabbed for cells to determine their DNA profiles.

The papers were filed by Jonathan Richards, a special agent with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency who was deputized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The two agencies conducted the investigation.

The Mexican man, who was not named in the documents, told agents that he and six other undocumented Mexican laborers went to work for the operation tending marijuana plants. He said two people oversaw the day-to-day operation, "Rod" and "Scott."

Another man, whom he later identified as French, came occasionally to check on the operation and give direction, according to the documents.

Authorities say Rod is Rodney Russell and Scott is Scott MacPherson.

The Mexican man said the work crew included two of his cousins. "He explained that his cousins had warned him that Malcolm 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 documents say.

Acting on a tip, officers flew low over a remote corner of Washington County and saw people setting fire to buildings on several plots containing thousands of marijuana plants.

When police raided the marijuana growing operation, the man said, he and the others escaped through the woods, running for a half-hour. They then encountered the man he knew as Malcolm, the documents say.

After a discussion, MacPherson turned back in the direction of "the grow" and returned about a half-hour later, the documents say.

As police closed in on the marijuana, they encountered a man identified as French, driving a white pickup truck deep in the woods, five to eight miles from the field, the papers say.

When agents arrived, they found a two-story building that was used for drying marijuana. Propane heaters on the first floor sent heat up through a wire mesh to dry plants spread out on the upper level, the court papers say.

Address labels had been removed from the boxes that had contained the heaters -- except for one, which bore the name of Malcolm French, the documents say. Another box at the site was addressed to Russell.

Agents collected several items that they thought might have DNA on them, including rubber gloves, cigarette butts, toothbrushes and beer cans. Samples taken from those items eventually linked the operation to the Mexican man.

The samples were not submitted to the Maine State Police crime laboratory until 2011, at which point a profile was developed and put into a national database of offenders.

The delay may have been related to the death of Scott MacPherson. The documents say MacPherson killed himself on Feb. 18, 2011, just days before he was to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the case.

In April 2011, agents submitted 38 pieces of evidence from the marijuana farm to the crime lab for analysts to recover DNA.

The crime lab developed DNA profiles of seven men. None of them matched MacPherson's DNA.

The DNA did yield a "hit" with the Mexican man, whose DNA would have been on file because of his conviction.

Police conducted four other searches in connection with the drug raid in 2009. The court documents say seized records indicate that French, his company Cold Stream Construction and Russell bought items for the marijuana operation, including Promix potting soil, Rabbit Guard wire, fencing, pruning shears, large water-holding tanks and propane heaters.

French runs the land development and timber company Haynes Timberland with his wife, Barbara French, who was not listed in the federal indictments released earlier this week.

Haynes Timberland and the Frenches have bought, sold and managed numerous tracts of land throughout Maine over the years.

The name Haynes Timberland has created confusion about links to H.C. Haynes Inc., a much larger and better-known forest products company based in Winn.

The companies are entirely separate, and H.C. Haynes Inc. was not indicted or named in any court documents made public in the case.

Barbara French is the daughter of the late Herbert C. Haynes Sr., who started H.C. Haynes Inc., and apparently works or has worked in the company's main office.

The two companies have engaged in numerous land transactions since Haynes Timberland was incorporated by the Frenches in 2001.

In a letter sent to customers this week, H.C. Haynes President Jay Haynes (brother of Barbara French) stressed that his company was not involved in the marijuana case and that "our business is a separate company from Haynes Timberland, with a separate management team."

-- Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller contributed to this report.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald

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