This is hands down the most bizarre story I ever covered in my unremarkable career as a newspaperman. It dragged on for three or four years. It was a story that refused to die, no matter how badly I wanted to stomp it to death. It was also one of the most frustrating stories, because I saw how the MSM missed the real story, and insisted on chasing after the “shiny object.”
It all began with a drug raid on a tiny island in the Puget Sound. Only about 75 people lived on this island. Most of them were people who had moved there to “get off the grid.” There were two groups on this island — the newcomers and the old-timers. The old-timers had been whittled down and essentially pushed out by the newcomers. There was one old-timer left, a logger who had been logging on the island for decades.
The newcomers pushed through a land use plan to limit how much this guy could log. It was extremely contentious and ugly and involved lots of litigation. Eventually, the newcomers won their battle fair and square. The guy could still log, but there would be rules and regulations he would have to adhere to. There were limits. He was pissed about it. In the old days, there were no rules. There were a lot of rumours of vandalism on the island and some of the old-timers told me they were literally hounded off the island by the newcomers. The newcomers were people who for various reasons, dropped out of society on the mainland and just wanted to return to the land. They were big believers in sustainable living, living off what you could grow yourself.
About a year after the battle over the land use plan finally ended, there was a big drug bust on the island. We got a call that there was a truck in front of the county courthouse containing hundreds of pot plants. Sure enough, you could smell it from blocks away. It was over 1,000 plants. They had raided several properties on this island and arrested 11 people, roughly one-seventh of the population of the entire island. One couple had 500 plants, some other people had 100 plants each. One guy had seven plants. The cops claimed the pot was worth over $2 million (I’m guessing it was worth half that), and that they cracked the case by busting people selling the dope in local high schools. They traced that dope back to this island.
Personally, I think pot should be legal, but I didn’t feel very sorry for most of these folks. They were growing industrial levels of pot, on an isolated island because they figured no one ever find out, then were dealing it to kids. They also busted a couple of them with semi-automatic assault rifles. These weren’t harmless hippies. They were businesspeople.
Well, the following day, I got a long visit from a resident of the island. I’ll call him “Bill.” He was one of the leaders of the litigation against the old-timer logger. Bill had been detained as part of the drug raid, but they didn’t find any pot on his property and they let him go. His name was one of the names that cropped up in a search warrant. He was really pissed off about it and felt his name showed up on a search warrant out of political retribution. He was convinced the logger was behind it. Frankly, knowing this logger, who was a crusty old bugger, I knew it was entirely plausible.
I wrote about his experience, got comments from the sheriff that they had reliable information he was growing pot. They got a judge to sign a search warrant, didn’t find any pot, and after detaining the guy for a couple of hours, let him go. He was never arrested, never went to jail, never had to go to court, never had to hire an attorney. The old logger wouldn’t talk to me. Maybe he got screwed by the logger, maybe not. But in the end, if the logger was out to get him, he missed his target.
The various cases wound their way through the courts. The biggest dealer pleaded out and went to federal prison for about 18 months, the other growers insisted on fighting their cases and were ultimately convicted by juries. I don’t think any of them got sentences stronger than probation and fines. One guy kept violating his probation and kept testing positive for THC, which he blamed on hemp oil in his diet. The county had to bring up a state toxicologist from Olympia to testify that was a lie. I caught shit from the publisher because I kept writing about this guy and he was the son of a local and extremely obnoxious major advertiser.
But, one case continued to really bug me. The guy with seven plants. He was convicted after a bench trial, didn’t get any jail time, but appealed his decision. His case didn’t pass the smell test at all. Seven plants is hardly a dealer.
Sure enough, the state’s case against him really sucked. He was never named in the original search warrants. While the cops were searching the property with 500 plants, one of the cops, actually a federal agent on loan to the local cops, “accidentally” wandered 400 yards off the property, completely across another person’s property, then stumbled onto this guy’s patch of seven plants. Then, the cops called a judge at the county courthouse, got a warrant over the phone, then arrested the guy.
Bullshit, I thought. You can’t do that. You don’t just accidentally wander 1,200 feet, nearly a quarter mile, off a property that you’re supposed to be searching.
That case went to an appeals court, which upheld the county’s conviction, then went to the state Supreme Court. Other than that case, I forgot about the drug bust.
Two-plus years went by. Then Bill showed up unannounced at our office one day (this is how they did things on that island. Calling and setting up an appointment was unheard of, apparently.). He still wanted me to write about the logger who had burned him. He talked to me for two or three hours. He told me this wild story.
Bill said a woman on the island, his next door neighbour, told her that the logger had pressured her to lie to the cops that he was growing pot. She said this took place in a conversation on her porch. The logger wanted to burn Bill for the land use plan. He asked her to lie to the cops about Bill growing pot. Bill said I could interview the woman, but she was shy and afraid of retribution from the cops, and would only talk to me if Bill and a coalition of residents from the island were present in the room.
This sent up a LOT of red flags. I flat out refused Bill’s proposition. I said I could not talk to her under those conditions. I would only talk to her privately, not with a group of “minders” in the room with us. If he wanted to set up the appointment, that was fine, but it would only be the two of us involved, no one else. Bill refused.
Also, I was concerned about the hearsay element of this story. Who really knew what took place in that conversation between the logger and Bill’s neighbour? It was going to turn into her word against the logger’s. And what the hell did the logger really have to gain by getting the woman to lie to the cops that Bill was growing pot? If he wasn’t growing pot, that would just make the logger look like an idiot. It didn’t make sense. I said it was difficult for me to write a story when all it was was her word against the logger’s. So, we parted ways. I took lots of notes, agreed to keep the notes, but ultimately, it came down to Bill refusing to allow me to interview the woman privately. I didn’t trust his conditions and that was a deal breaker. I also couldn’t figure out why he was still obsessing on this after two years. I reiterate, this guy didn’t spend a single night in jail, never had to post bail, never went to court and had no name to clear.
A few weeks later, I think after some late night covering high school basketball, I was tired and sitting in a local bar getting dinner and watching some sporting event on TV. Bill came wandering into the bar. He looked really weird, disheveled. His eyes were darting all over the place. He said he was looking for “Andy.” “Andy” was a local gadfly who used to work at a competing paper but was fired for secretly tampering with letters to the editor behind the editor’s back. Andy then became a freelance journalist and a local anti-drug law crusader. He put out this little flyer every couple of weeks taking the local cops to task for their drug enforcement tactics. He actually made some valid points from time to time about drug enforcement, but he also played fast and loose with the facts and made a lot of false accusations toward the cops and court, which to me killed his credibility. I never took him too seriously. Andy really didn’t have an obvious source of income, and the cops were convinced he was a dealer. He actually was interviewed by Stephen Glass about DARE in a New Republic piece.
Anyway, Bill said Andy had agreed to do an article about him, and they were supposed to meet, but he couldn’t find him. He was afraid something had happened to him. I finally said, “what do you think the sheriff took him out into the woods and whacked him..?”
Bill looked at me. “I dunno, do you think he did?”
“Andy knows a lot of things going on…”
“A cap? Right in the back of the head? Um, you weren’t followed when you came in here, were you?” What can I say? I was probably a little drunk at this point and I was feeling mean and getting fed up with Bill’s conspiracies and obsessiveness.
“Oh, shit, I wasn’t paying attention.” I pointed out the back door was unlit. It would be easy for him to sneak out without being seen. He slinked out, and I was able to drink and watch my sporting event in peace.
Oh, boy, I thought. This pretty much summed up Bill. I really thought he was in the midst of a nervous breakdown. That was the last time Bill and I ever gave each other the time of day. I realized he was dealing with some mental health issues.
The next day, I saw Andy around town and I told him he really needed to get a hold of Bill because Bill was worried about him. Andy said they had just crossed some wires.
A couple of weeks later, there was a special insert placed in everyone’s mailboxes. Instead of a little newsletter, it was Andy’s little screed, printed on four pages of tabloid newsprint, and placed in thousands of mailboxes. It had to have cost thousands of dollars. Apparently, all the people on this island chipped in about $100 each to pay for this. It was all a story about Bill, and how Bill got set up by the cops and the logger and how his neighbour confessed to all of this. Andy had agreed to meet with Bill and his neighbour, on Bill’s conditions that I had refused.
Both the Seattle Times and Seattle P-I jumped on this. Apparently, copies of the newsletter were sent to them and they gobbled it up — “Questions raised about drug bust three years ago!” were the headlines. The two Seattle papers didn’t talk to the woman at all (In fact, the only so-called “journalist” who ever talked to her was Andy). They just talked to the sheriff and Bill and quoted stuff out of the newsletter. I went through a tense time with my editor, as she asked me if we had missed a big story here. No, I told her. I’m sure we didn’t miss a big story. I was sure this was all bullshit. The Seattle papers were being stupid … and lazy. It was a dark week. I knew they had blown it; they were missing the real story. I was really, really pissed off. I know they had it all wrong. Bill was nuts. I had seen how crazy he was in the bar. They were basing their A1 stories on nothing but wild hearsay.
Sure enough, a few days after that newsletter came out, I saw something in the local police 9-1-1 log. The 9-1-1 log was usually stuff about women calling the cops because their husbands were hitting them, but sometimes you stumbled onto legitimate stories there (Such as an airplane hitting an orca).
The cops had been called out to an emergency on the island. Bill’s neighbour had called 9-1-1 saying her life was in danger and she had to get off the island or she would be killed.
End of Vol. 1!