BANGOR, Maine — Jurors in the federal trial of three men accused of running one of the most sophisticated marijuana operations in the state’s history got a glimpse Thursday of what life might have been like on a pot farm in Township 37 in Washington County.
Prosecutors called six witnesses to the stand in U.S. District Court, each a law enforcement officer involved in the investigation of the operation in September 2009.
Malcolm French, 52, of Enfield, Kendall Chase, 57, of Bradford and Rodney Russell, 50, of South Thomaston face a variety of charges in connection with the operation on a plot from which the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency seized nearly 3,000 mature marijuana plants with an estimated value of $9 million. The pot farm was discovered on Sept. 22, 2009, in a 10-acre swamp on 22,000 acres of land owned by Haynes Timberland Inc. French is part owner of that company.
Members of the Maine Warden Service, Washington County Sheriff’s Department, and a former MDEA agent recalled the events of Sept. 21 and 22, when they combed the isolated logging roads and remote woods near Horse Lake after state police received a series of anonymous tips about the Township 37 operation.
The first wardens on scene combed the site with their service weapons drawn, they told jurors, not knowing whether anyone had stayed behind to defend it. But the site had been abandoned.
Investigators found the smoldering remains of what had been two sheds, along with several standing buildings with heavily worn footpaths between them. Paths also led downhill to a nearby bog, which was surrounded by “large, well-cared-for [marijuana] plants,” according to Game Warden Robert Carter.
The buildings were cobbled together out of rough-cut lumber and plywood. Some were drying shacks, with large shelves and propane heaters below used to dry out harvested marijuana. Another building served as the kitchen, complete with a fridge, oven and propane water heater, which would have provided workers with hot showers. Police believe most of the employees were undocumented migrant workers in the country illegally.
Photographs taken by investigators of the kitchen facility showed pots and pans hanging from the wall. A few bottles of liquor sat on a table. A pile of trash that someone had attempted to light on fire sat in front of the stove, partly burned. Inside an outhouse, police found several pornographic magazines from recent years. The shelves were still stocked with food when police arrived.
“There was a lot of Mexican-style food,” Carter said, without elaborating.
Buildings and empty fertilizer bags were usually covered with tarps or other forms of camouflage, police said.
Maine State Police Sgt. Jeff Ingemi was among a team that combed the camp for DNA and other physical evidence on Sept. 23. He testified that investigators swabbed bottles and cans that had once contained alcoholic beverages, and also swept surfaces around the camp for DNA samples.
Investigators also found a manila envelope addressed to Moises Soto, who pleaded guilty July 30 to a drug conspiracy charge and one count of harboring illegal aliens. The envelope included a “care-of” line with Russell’s name, Ingemi said.
In nearby parts of Township 37, investigators found several other plots of land, which they named Sites A through E, that contained evidence of past marijuana grows, including empty potting soil bags, protective chicken-wire fencing, drying sheds, a small camp and more.
During Thursday’s testimony, prosecutors also informed jurors that Chase was involved in a marijuana growing ring in Danforth in 2003, and that he had pleaded guilty to charges resulting from his involvement in that case. Jurors were instructed to take that as evidence that he knew how to grow marijuana in Washington County, but not as evidence that it makes it any more plausible that he was involved in the Township 37 operation a decade later.
In his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel Casey on Wednesday called the marijuana farm “a big business” with mid-level managers, of which Russell was one; a product developer, who was Chase; and workers.
The prosecution expects to call more law enforcement officers to the stand when the trial resumes on Friday. There are 70 names on the prosecution’s list of potential witnesses. The trial is expected to last two to three weeks.
BDN reporter Judy Harrison contributed to this report.