BANGOR, Maine — A well-known northern Maine businessman was sentenced to 14 years and seven months in federal prison and two accomplices were sentenced with him Thursday for running a sophisticated outdoor marijuana growing operation in Washington County that was uncovered more than 6½ years ago.
Malcolm French, 54, of Enfield, Rodney Russell, 52, of South Thomaston and Kendall Chase, 59, of Bradford were found guilty on a variety of charges in connection with the pot farm, located in Township 37, on Jan. 24, 2014, after a 10-day jury trial.
In addition to prison time, French, whose companies at one time owned between 70,000 and 80,000 acres of timberland in Maine, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge John Woodcock to five years of supervised release and ordered to pay a $100,000 fine.
Russell was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in prison to be followed by five years of supervised release. Chase was sentenced to five years in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release, and he was ordered to pay a $17,500 fine.
In addition to convicting the men on a variety of charges, the jury found Haynes Timberland Inc., the firm that owns the land where the farm was located, guilty of maintaining a drug-involved place.
The five-hour sentencing hearing Thursday brought to an end a legal saga that began Sept. 22, 2009, when state and federal law enforcement officers raided the plantation and seized nearly 3,000 marijuana plants with an estimated street value between $6 million and $9 million. Undocumented workers lived at the remote site accessible only by dirt roads off Stud Mill Road several miles north of Route 9. As it was raided, the workers set fire to the site and fled.
More than 40 family members and friends of the defendants filled the gallery of the third-floor courtroom in the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building on Harlow Street. Several asked the judge to balance justice with mercy so their loved ones could return home and resume their lives as soon as possible.
Each defendant also briefly addressed the judge.
“If I live through my incarceration, your honor, you will not see me in your courtroom or any other courtroom ever again,” French said.
Russell and Chase both asked Woodcock to consider other aspects of their lives and not just the crimes they’d been convicted of in sentencing them.
In imposing the sentences, Woodcock said that one of the reasons French and Russell received longer sentences than Chase is that Chase did not take the stand during the trial and lie about his involvement as French and Russell did.
The judge said he concluded that after French reported finding marijuana growing on a section of land he owned in LaGrange to law enforcement officials and there was no investigation, “Mr. French decided that if others could grow marijuana on his land with impunity, so could he and set about finding people to do that.”
French sought the advice of Chase, who was knowledgeable about growing quality marijuana, Woodcock said. The judge described Russell’s role as that of a utility infielder in baseball, meaning he performed multiple jobs. Russell and Scott MacPherson ran the day-to-day operation at the grow site, according to testimony.
MacPherson, who was granted immunity, took his own life in February 2011, days before he was to testify before a federal grand jury, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
“What began as a way to make a profit, ended in a series of losses,” Woodcock said. “Scott MacPherson paid with his life. The three defendants paid with their freedom, and Malcolm French paid with his assets. What began as a calculated risk for profit ended as a cautionary tale of incalculable loss.”
French, Russell and Chase were scheduled to be sentenced along with Haynes Timberland on Feb. 10, 2015. Woodcock delayed the men’s sentencing but fined the firm that owned the land where it was located $100,000.
In addition to imposing the fine in February on Haynes Timberland, now owned by French’s wife, Barbara French of Enfield, Woodcock gave final approval to a deal that allows the firm to retain ownership of the 22,000 acres that makes up all of Township 37 in exchange for $1.55 million. The money has been in a government escrow account for about 22 months, according to court documents.
Jurors ordered that the land be forfeited to the government after reaching its verdict. Two other properties — a hunting camp in LaGrange and a warehouse complex in Township 31 — will be forfeited as the jury decided. The $100,000 fine was paid the day it was imposed.
Malcolm French and Russell faced a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison. Chase did not because the jury did not find he was responsible for as many marijuana plants as the other defendants.
Earlier this month, Woodcock determined that under the federal sentencing guidelines, the recommended sentences for French and Russell was between 12 years and seven months and 15 years and eight months. For Chase, the recommended guideline range was 6½ to 8 years and one month in prison.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel Casey urged Woodcock to sentence French and Russell to 15 years and eight months each and Chase to seven years and three months. The federal prosecutor also recommended French be ordered to pay a $300,000 fine and Chase be ordered to pay a $20,000 fine because they have considerable assets and Russell does not.
Attorneys for French and Russell argued that the facts of the case called for a 10-year sentence for each man. Chase’s attorney asked that he be sentenced to the 27 months he has served so that he may help care for his wife, who suffers from a chronic condition, and his 90-year-old mother.
The three men have been held without bail since their convictions, most recently at the Somerset County Jail in East Madison. That time will be applied to their federal prison sentences.
Their co-defendant, Robert Berg, 52, of Corinna, pleaded guilty Jan. 7, 2014, shortly before the trio’s trial began, to being an accessory after the fact to manufacturing 1,000 or more marijuana plants.
By pleading guilty, Berg admitted he knew about the pot plantation and that police had raided it Sept. 22, 2009, forcing workers to flee. The next day, a longtime friend asked Berg to pick up the undocumented workers in the woods in Washington County, according to the prosecution version of events to which he pleaded guilty.
He was sentenced to six months in prison followed by a year of supervised release. Berg, who was released from the federal prison camp in Ayers, Massachusetts, on April 8, 2015, also was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.
In a separate case, Berg admitted on June 23, 2014, that his custom screen printing and embroidery company created fake logos of sports teams, a distillery, a tractor company and a motorcycle manufacturer.
Robert Berg Enterprises Inc. had been under investigation for trafficking in counterfeit goods, money laundering and tax evasion for more than three years, according to court documents.
Berg did not face prison time on those charges.
Moises Soto, 55, of Nuevo Leon, Mexico, the man who recruited the undocumented workers who worked and lived on the plantation, is due to be released Sept. 7 from a federal re-entry facility in San Antonio, Texas. Soto, who testified against French, Chase and Russell, pleaded guilty in July 2013 to a drug conspiracy charge and one count of harboring illegal aliens.
He was sentenced to four years in prison, some of which was served while he was being held without bail after his arrest in March 2013.