Editor’s Note: This story was amended on Jan. 14, 2014, to remove references to Malcolm French that were revealed to be incorrect during testimony at the trial of French and two other men. See correction below.
Acting on a tip, four Maine game wardens headed to a remote corner of 22,000-acre Township 37, close to the border of Washington and Hancock counties.
The wardens knew the property, northeast of Horse Lake, was accessible only by foot or ATV, and its access roads were secured by three locking gates. On ATVs, two wardens found a north side gate open and drove onto the property.
It was Sept. 21, 2009.
An unidentified man approached and told the wardens they could not be inside the gate.
The wardens, however, noticed something off about the man’s behavior, according to court records filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor. Warden Robert Carter saw the man “visibly shaking” and he looked nervous.
The man’s voice also was quivering.
The next morning, Sept. 22, Carter flew over the site in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection air and marine plane based in Houlton and saw what he believed was marijuana growing on land owned by Malcolm French. Later that day, around 2:30 p.m., Carter again flew over the site in a CBP helicopter “for a closer look.”
From the helicopter, Carter and Warden Allen Curtis confirmed there was marijuana on the land. About 20 minutes into the flight, however, the wardens also saw something else.
A burning building.
Four years ago this month, the most extensive and sophisticated marijuana growing operation in Maine history was discovered on French’s property in Township 37: some 3,000 plants, valued at approximately $9 million, were being cultivated.
While the criminal cases of those involved in the operation — located between Stud Mill Road and the Airline, or Route 9 — are pending, court records tell a story of a multifaceted, 24-hour operation alleged to involve a well-known local businessman, extensive surveillance equipment, camps, warehouses and migrant laborers.
“This was a very sophisticated operation,” said Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. “There was a tremendous amount of effort and energy put into this, including extensive pruning to develop the buds. This operation was given a lot of thought.”
The marijuana was so well-cultivated that the value of the buds was higher than normal. In 2009, McKinney estimated the plants, many of which were 8 feet tall when discovered, could be worth $3,000 each for a total value of $9 million.
In 2012, five men — including two local businessmen — were indicted on federal drug charges related to Township 37: French, 51, of Enfield, Robert Berg, 49, of Dexter, Rodney Russell, 49, of South Thomaston, Kendall Chase, 56, of Bradford and Moises Soto, 53, of Mexico.
Haynes Timberland, French’s corporation, also was indicted.
All but Soto have pleaded not guilty and have been freed on bail. Soto pleaded guilty July 30 to a drug conspiracy charge and one count of harboring illegal aliens. He is being held awaiting sentencing.
The indictment alleges the drug conspiracy began in early 2006 and ended the day of the raid. Berg, who owns Berg Sportswear in Corinna, is accused of involvement only in 2009, while the others are charged with conspiring for nearly four years.
How the defendants knew one another, how the marijuana was distributed and how much each defendant earned for his role in the operation remains undisclosed by prosecutors.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel Casey, who is prosecuting the case, said more details are not expected to be made public until trial briefs are filed a few weeks before jury selection or other defendants plead guilty.
It was one year before the wardens’ descent on Township 37 that an anonymous tipster left details on the Maine State Police’s website about a suspected marijuana grow site at French’s camp in LaGrange.
It was the first of several tips submitted to the site over the next 12 months, including two after wardens flew over French’s land and discovered the marijuana.
Many of the details given to police by the tipster were corroborated by investigators at the Township 37 site, even though a marijuana growing operation was not discovered on French’s LaGrange property.
Court records say the tipster gave police French’s home and cellphone numbers and details about use of camouflage tarps, drying heaters and “tractor-trailer loads” of potting soil. He or she also said French was working with “Ken Chase,” who lived in Bradford.
The tipster has requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, according to court documents.
The same tipster left similar information on Oct. 9, 2008, and Dec. 11, 2008, but then apparently was silent for nine months. On Sept. 16, 2009, six days before the raid in Township 37 and nearly a year to the day after posting the first tip, the tipster left the information on which law enforcement took action.
After the Township 37 operation was found, the tipster posted two more messages — one four days later and another on Oct. 1.
McKinney said last month that he did not know why the 2008 tips were not pursued. It could have been a lack of law enforcement resources or the number of other investigations being pursued at the time, he said.
Much of what is known publicly about the operation comes from Martin Roblero, a 22-year-old undocumented migrant worker.
His deposition was recorded in federal court in Bangor on May 15, shortly before he was due to be deported to his native Mexico after completing a sentence for sexual assault in Indiana.
Roblero’s DNA was one of seven samples collected in Township 37, which led officials to find him in an Indiana jail.
He testified that he illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona in 2009 and came to Maine when he learned a cousin, Samuel, was working in the blueberry industry.
During the blueberry harvest, Roblero said, he lived in an apartment rented by Soto in Bangor with at least six other people. When the harvest ended, Soto asked him to work planting pine trees. When Roblero arrived in Township 37, however, he learned that he and six other Mexican workers would be tending marijuana instead.
Roblero, who has received immunity in exchange for his cooperation, told investigators about multiple buildings on the farm, including one with a stove and refrigerator, and two dorms where the men slept. Police have confirmed there were seven buildings at the site, but no electricity.
Roblero and the other workers, except Soto, stayed in Township 37 Monday through Friday and were paid $250 a week. They did not pay rent, but did pay $20 per week toward food.
Every Friday, someone would drive the workers into Bangor for the weekend.
Roblero said his “job was to protect the marijuana by keeping rabbits away and by cutting the yellow leaves off the plants, that the rabbits were dealt with by using sticks and tarps, but no guns, not even air guns.”
He told police the harvest had not begun when he and others fled on Sept. 22, 2009, when the helicopter appeared overheard.
Roblero and the other Mexican workers ran from the site, he said, leaving their belongings and food and water behind. He was unsure which way they ran, but it was through the woods away from the site.
At his deposition Roblero said American supervisors, known to the migrants as “Scott” and “Rod,” started the fires in the buildings.
More than 24 hours after escaping, Roblero said the migrants were picked up by a man, whose name he did not know, in a white van.
The unidentified man gave them food and sweatshirts that had the word “Maine” on them, he testified, and then drove them to a warehouse where they stayed for two days. He said the warehouse was full of boxes that contained clothing.
After that, Roblero said, he and others were taken to upstate New York and sent on their way.
Roblero’s story, however, has been questioned. Roblero has admitted during testimony that he has changed his story several times. And in 2011, Roblero told police he was actually in Bangor when the farm was raided.
He recanted that statement at his deposition in May.
When wardens arrived at the Township 37 site, they found no one. The fire burned about a half-acre of woods and two wooden structures believed to be bunkhouses, but destroyed little evidence, according to court documents.
It took two days for officials to harvest the 8-foot-tall plants into bundles of 100, then walk through a swampy, boggy area to an access road where they could be secured.
Search warrants filed after the search appear to link evidence found at French’s home to items found in Township 37. Vacuum sealers and tall propane cylinders similar to those found at the site also were found at French’s Enfield home.
Berg Sportswear was searched by federal authorities in January 2011. Court records indicate officials were investigating the Corinna business — which does screenprinting and embroidery — for allegedly using logos of sports teams, distilleries and a motorcycle manufacturer without permission.
No charges related to the illegal use of logos have yet been filed against Berg or the business.
There are no public documents that link Berg to French and the other defendants. Russell and Chase are the only defendants who had criminal records before being indicted last year.
The three-year-long investigation into the Township 37 growing operation and resulting charges have taken a toll on those involved.
Scott MacPherson of Wesley, who according to court documents was implicated in the operation, took his own life in February 2011, just days before he was scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury.
In March, French attempted to hang himself at his mother’s home, according to court documents. When police and an ambulance crew arrived, French, his wife and his mother denied he had attempted suicide. All three said French had fallen down the stairs.
What effect the charges have had on French’s business ventures could not be determined from court documents.
Neither French nor Haynes Timberland has filed for bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. If convicted, he would have to forfeit land he owns in Townships 37 and 31, as well as two properties in LaGrange.
Attorneys for French, Berg, Soto and Haynes Timberland have declined to comment on the case. If convicted of drug conspiracy, the men face between 10 years and life in prison.
“My client’s only comment is that he is innocent,” Russell’s attorney, Steven C. Peterson of Rockport, wrote in an email.
Jeffrey Silverstein, who represents Chase, wrote in an email that he has seen no evidence linking his client to the Township 37 grow site.
“I look forward to challenging the evidence presented by the government at [trial], Silverstein said.