Fifth man arrested in connection with massive pot farm in Washington County

Posted March 20, 2013, at 2:47 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A fifth man has been arrested in connection with a marijuana growing operation in Washington County that law enforcement officials have called the largest in the state’s history.

Moises Soto, 52, of Nuevo Leon, Mexico, was arrested Friday in Texas, according to court documents. He allegedly ran the growing operation using illegal aliens as workers.

The circumstances of his arrest were not available Wednesday. Soto is scheduled to be arraigned in federal court in Bangor next month.

Soto on Monday made his first appearance before a federal judge in McAllen, Texas, according to information on the court system’s electronic case filing system. His bail hearing is scheduled to be held Thursday in Texas.

Soto was indicted in September by a federal grand jury on one count each of conspiracy to manufacture 1,000 or more marijuana plants and manufacturing 1,000 or more marijuana plants, two counts of maintaining a drug-involved place and three counts of harboring illegal aliens.

His name was redacted from the indictment pending his arrest.

Also indicted were Robert Berg, 49, of Dexter; Malcolm French, 50, of Enfield; Rodney Russell, 48, of South Thomaston; and Kendall Chase, 55, of Bradford. All four men, along with Haynes Timberland Inc., a Maine corporation, have pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the Sept. 22, 2009, seizure of 2,943 marijuana plants. The men remain free on bail awaiting trial, which has been scheduled for September.

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 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.

French and his wife, Barbara French, own Haynes Timberland. The corporation owns the land where the marijuana was grown, according to court documents. Federal prosecutors have asked that the corporation be required to forfeit the property.

It took more than 60 state and federal law enforcement officers almost a week in the fall of 2009 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, according to previously published reports.

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

When the marijuana operation was discovered, Maine Drug Enforcement Agency officials characterized 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,” MDEA 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 affidavit for the search warrant said that DNA from seven males was found on various items seized in the buildings where marijuana was being harvested and where workers from Mexico were housed. Just one matched an individual in the national DNA database.

That individual, who is identified in court documents as “CW,” was incarcerated out of state after being convicted of child molestation, the affidavit for the search warrant said. In exchange for immunity from prosecution, the man, who speaks only Spanish and is in the country illegally, told investigators that he and six other Mexicans worked at the marijuana operation under a foreman named “Moises.”

“He explained that other than Moises and his six Mexican colleagues, there were three Americans who he regularly saw at the Grow,” the affidavit said in an apparent reference to the plantation. “Two stayed at the Grow all the time. Their names were ‘Rod’ and ‘Scott.’ He explained that Rod and Scott lived and worked at the Grow and kept an eye on the progress of the Mexican workers.”

CW also told police that the owner of the Grow was Malcolm, according to the affidavit. CW picked out photos of French, MacPherson and Russell from a photo array.

The case has tentatively been scheduled for trial Nov. 7 but because of the amount of discovery in the case it is unlikely to be ready for trial until next year, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

If convicted, defendants charged with conspiracy and manufacturing marijuana face between 10 years and life in prison and a $10 million fine.

Those charged with managing and controlling property used to manufacture marijuana face up to 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine, if convicted. Defendants 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, if convicted.

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