Five people, timberland company indicted in major 2009 Down East pot seizure

Marijuana plants authorities seized in Washington County in 2009.
MAINE DRUG ENFORCEMENT AGENCY
Marijuana plants authorities seized in Washington County in 2009.
Posted Sept. 24, 2012, at 12:22 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 25, 2012, at 11:46 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Five people and a Maine corporation have been indicted on federal charges in connection with a massive marijuana operation that was uncovered in Washington County in September 2009.

It took more than 60 state and federal law enforcement officers almost a week that fall to harvest nearly 3,000 high-quality marijuana plants worth an estimated $9 million from a remote area in Township 37 near the town of Wesley and about 10 miles off Route 9.

The massive pot plantation was found after a tip was left on the Maine State Police Troop J website. When police flew a plane over the operation, people on the ground set fire to several buildings being used as dormitories before the suspected growers fled.

In a press release issued Monday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that Malcolm French, 50, of Enfield; Rodney Russell, 48, of South Thomaston; Kendall Chase, 55, of Bradford; Robert Berg, 49, of Dexter; and Haynes Timberland Inc., a Maine corporation, had been indicted on federal drug and other charges arising from the Sept. 22, 2009, seizure of 2,943 marijuana plants.

All four men were arrested Sunday, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel Casey, who is prosecuting the case. Each pleaded not guilty to the charges lodged against him late Monday afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Margaret Kravchuk.

Another individual also has been indicted in the case but has not been arrested, Casey said. Once the person is arrested, his or her name will be released.

French, Russell and Chase are charged with conspiracy to manufacture more than 1,000 marijuana plants. French, Russell, Berg and Chase are charged with manufacturing more than 1,000 marijuana plants. French, Russell and Haynes Timberland Inc. are charged with managing and controlling property used to manufacture marijuana. French, Russell and Berg also are charged with harboring illegal aliens. In addition, Berg is charged with assisting individuals conspiring to manufacture marijuana evade apprehension.

Berg appears to be the owner of Berg Sportswear, the Corinna business that does custom screen printing and embroidery that was raided by federal investigators in January 2011. Documents made public in July indicated that investigators were looking for evidence that Berg was using logos for major sports teams illegally.

Casey said Monday that he could not comment on what business the defendant in the marijuana manufacturing case might own. The Robert Berg who appeared in court Monday and the owner of the shop in Corinna have the same lawyer, Charles Gilbert of Bangor.

Gilbert did not appear with Berg on Monday. Eric Black, an associate of Gilbert’s, appeared on the attorney’s behalf. Gilbert issued a statement on Berg’s behalf in August 2011 after court documents related to the business were made public.

Investigators in January 2011 seized business records, computers and dozens of boxes of merchandise from the business and residence, according to a custody receipt for seized property and evidence filed in federal court in Bangor. In addition to those items, more than $38,000 in U.S. currency and $740 in Canadian cash was found and seized in safes in the garage of Berg’s home.

“The affidavit recites that one of the participating agencies in the raid was the Maine [Drug Enforcement Agency], yet there was nothing in the affidavit which remotely suggested the presence of anything of interest to drug agents,” said the statement issued on behalf of Berg and the company in August 2011, “and the totally false rumor that this search had something to do with drugs has been especially hurtful to our business.

“Similarly, despite rumors to the contrary, there were no illegal aliens or other undocumented workers at the job site, or employed by us,” the statement said. “Rather, what the agents found was a legitimate business trying to carry on and support its community and its employees in difficult economic times.”

Gilbert said in August 2011 that most copyright infringement issues are handled through civil actions that usually begin with attorneys for firms sending out “cease and desist” letters telling companies or individuals suspected of using logos and mascots without permission to stop using them or face a lawsuit.

Kravchuk on Monday ordered that a bail hearing for Berg be held Thursday. The judge set the date after Berg, through attorney Black, told her he was not sure he could post property valued at $250,000 as required and had concerns about removing all firearms from his home, a condition of his bail, on such short notice.

French was released after his court appearance Monday on $350,000 bail, secured by the deed to his home. Chase is expected to be released later this week once his $250,000 bail, secured by deeds to his primary residence in Penobscot County and summer home in Washington County, is posted.

Russell, who is on supervised release for a conviction in April 2011 for health care fraud, was released on his own recognizance. He was released July 6 after serving five months in federal prison to the U.S. Bureau of Prison’s Inmate Locater website.

A jury found Russell guilty in April 2011 of four counts relating to false statements made in 2008 and 2009 to obtain health care benefits and not guilty of two counts covering statements allegedly made in 2007 and 2009.

Russell applied for the subsidized health care program after he lost his job in Bangor in 2006, according to court documents. He continued to receive benefits after he began working part time.

Court documents in the health care fraud case revealed that Russell was under investigation for being involved in a major drug trafficking operation, according to a previously published report.

When the marijuana operation was discovered in 2009 in Washington County, MDEA officials categorized the size, scope and detail of the operation as quite surprising. They said the plants — many of them 8 feet tall and highly cultivated — were of extremely high quality.

“We have never seen this type of operation in Maine before,” Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Director Roy McKinney said at the time. He confirmed that it was a plantation or farm, where caretakers of the crop lived 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“These are the types of operations we see on the West Coast,” McKinney said. “In Maine, when marijuana is grown in remote locations, someone usually hikes in and checks it periodically. These growers were living right here.”

There were seven buildings in the farm area.

The MDEA took the lead in the three-year investigation, but would not release any additional explanation of the charges — such as information about alleged illegal aliens or about how Berg allegedly helped the others evade apprehension.

“MDEA will not be commenting on this case moving forward,” said MDEA Northern Division Commander Darrell Crandall on Monday. “We’ll speak with one voice, and the voice will be the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, individual defendants charged with conspiracy and manufacturing marijuana face between 10 years and life in prison and a $10,000,000 fine; those charged with managing and controlling property used to manufacture marijuana face up to 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine; those charged with harboring illegal aliens face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine; and those charged with assisting individuals to evade apprehension face up to 15 years in prison and a $5 million fine. The indictment also seeks forfeiture of Haynes Timberland Inc. and the real property used to manufacture marijuana.

The investigation was conducted by the MDEA, the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Homeland Security Investigations, with assistance from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

BDN writer Mario Moretto contributed to this report.

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