Harvesting the weed

By John Ford Sr. | Dec 22, 2010

After 12 years of being a warden, several changes came about with regard to duties we were expected to perform as law enforcement officers.

About this time, there was a sudden explosion of self-taught horticulturists dabbling in the art of illegally growing marijuana. With the popularity of the plant, folks schemed and challenged society's rules to try to make a quick buck.

The marijuana market was thriving. There was no lack of customers, that's for sure.

In previous months, plants had sprung up in grown-up fields, along small country streams and in remote woodlots. Large patches of marijuana were popping up, seemingly out of nowhere.

Some of the crop was obviously destined for the gardeners' personal use and much of it obviously was intended to be sold to others who smoked the illicit material and didn't want to risk raising their own crop.

Late August 1983, a local hunter stopped by my residence. He anxiously talked about accidentally wandering into a large patch of “funny-looking plants” behind a young man's rented home in Jackson.

“I ain't never seen plants like that before. I think it's that stuff they call marijuana,” he sputtered. “But I can tell you this, the stuff I wandered into ain't nothing that's growing wild or naturally. Every plant is about head high. They look like full-bloomed Christmas trees. They're all staked up and surrounded by chicken wire. Some of them have tags on them with a variety of funny-looking names. I made sure I got to hell out of there some quick.”

I was vaguely familiar with the location he was talking about. I also knew that the young man residing on the property was known to occasionally indulge in a smoke or two. I also was aware he'd been previously convicted of trafficking in the illegal material.

The next day, accompanied by Scott Sienkiewicz, my trusted deputy warden, we conducted a search and it wasn't long before we stumbled across the patch of weed my informant had described. This patch of greenery was like none I'd ever seen before. There were between 30 and 40 plants, all of them well groomed and staked, just as he'd described.

I broke off a large sample from one of the plants to verify what we'd found.

Contacting my Maine State Police Trooper buddy Mark Nickerson, I advised him this wasn't a normal find of a few homegrown plants for someone's personal use. These critters were well-manicured, sticky to the touch and heavily loaded with buds. It appeared to Mark and I to be the best-quality plants we had ever seen.

It was time for us to devise a plan to capture the horticulturist raising this illegal crop. I suspected the culprit was the young man renting the small house adjacent to the patch of woods.

“How are we going to catch him in among the plants in order to prove they're his,” Mark inquired.

Using a little cop ingenuity, we came up with a plan that would hopefully draw our suspect directly to his crop. It needed to be well executed, so there'd be no doubt as to whose pot it was.

The plan was as follows: The next day, Scott and I would sneak back into the area where we could observe the marijuana patch. Mark, accompanied by Sgt. Gary Boynton of the Waldo County Sheriff's Office, would remain nearby in cruisers for communication and assistance. They'd remain well out of sight while still being close by to assist us when we gave them the word.

Once Scott and I were in place, we'd advise Mark and Gary that we were ready to carry out the effort. Mark would go to my house and place an anonymous phone call to the store in Brooks where our suspect was working.

Mark would advise him, "Hey, you don't know me, but I have a little word of advice for you. I was at the courthouse earlier today and I overheard cops trying to get a search warrant for the marijuana plants growing out behind your house. You might want to get them, before they do.”

Then he'd hang up, hoping this was enough to entice our suspect into taking the bait.

As luck had it, Warden Pilot Dana Toothaker would be overhead in the department aircraft. We solicited his expertise to become our eyes in the sky and observe the store where our suspect was working. Dana could advise us if the suspect had taken the bait and was en route to protect his stash.

Within minutes of implementing the plan, Mark said, “The call's been made.”

Dana was flying high over Brooks. Sgt. Boynton was monitoring radio traffic nearby, waiting to spring into action. Scott and I were nestled a few feet apart, hiding underneath the low branches of a couple of large hemlock trees.

We were situated right in the middle of the marijuana patch. It was show-and-tell time. The show was about ready to start. The radio came to life when Dana said, “Your suspect just ran out of the store. He's jumped into his van and is quickly coming your way.”

My heart pounded in anticipation of actually having a plan work for once. Dana was following the suspect, who was completely unaware he was being monitored from high overhead.

Dana said, “He's pulling into a dooryard. Now he's armed with a chainsaw. He's beginning to fell trees across the roadway leading into the field beside his house. It appears he's trying to prevent traffic from entering the old grown-up field near where you guys are located. I'm going to back out of here for now, so as not to spook him."

We could hear the chainsaw revving as trees were toppling.

Dana's role in the mission, a vital and informative one, had been completed. But once Dana departed none of us had any idea what was occurring. The saw had fallen quiet.

A few minutes later, I thought I heard a noise a short distance away, almost as if someone was climbing a tree. From where we were concealed, I couldn't be sure. Later on, I noticed a tree stand at the edge of the field, close to our proximity.

For the next 90 minutes, there was nothing but dead silence. I knew my buddy Mark would be getting impatient, but I advised him he ought to stay put. I felt someone was lurking nearby, but I couldn't see to tell for sure.

I knew Mark had the patience of a dog in heat when it came to waiting for something to happen. I realized I'd have to convince him to give it more time, which surprisingly I was able to accomplish. Suddenly, there were sounds of footsteps quietly coming our way. I was positioned a few feet from the plant I'd ripped a branch off earlier for identification purposes.

I noticed the legs and boots of a man standing at the plant a few feet away. He was looking it all over and muttering to himself, “What the hell ...” as he noticed the missing limb.

It was time to spring into action. I quickly slid out from underneath the hemlock tree and advised him, “Game Warden, hold it right there! You're under arrest.”

I found myself facing an angry man with a large machete in one hand, heading my way. He was obviously startled by the sudden intrusion into his private garden.

He started walking toward me and Scott jacked a live round into the 12-gauge shotgun as he approached from the opposite direction. We subdued and searched the detainee and were surprised to find a loaded 9-mm pistol tucked inside the waist of his pants.

Once he was handcuffed, I advised Mark and Gary that the mission was accomplished. It was time for them to join the fray.

Working these types of cases presented a certain amount of danger to those who might invade or accidentally stumble upon to a grow operation. Some outside gardens were booby-trapped with hazards that could injure trespassers.

In this case, our patience had paid off. Three agencies proved how effective coordinated teamwork could reap benefits.

The load of marijuana was harvested and transported to Augusta for testing and to be documented as evidence. Sgt. Boynton hauled the man to the county jail and we began cutting and documenting the illegal crop.

The load of leafy greenery nearly filled the back of my pickup truck. It looked like a forestry truck transporting a large load of Christmas trees — except these trees had large masses of sticky buds.

The estimated value of these plants was several thousand dollars. At that time, they were by far the best manicured and potent plants ever recovered in these parts in an outdoor grow operation.

Most surprisingly, I was able to convince my buddy Mark to stay in one spot for a couple of hours. That task alone was certainly quite an accomplishment — a major feat in itself.

There'd be many more harvests to come for me, but none as well coordinated as this one.

Teamwork speaks volumes. In this case, three wardens, a state trooper and a sheriff's deputy established how effective teamwork could be.

Justice did prevail.

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