Feds mum on Mendocino County pot investigation
Published: Tuesday, October 30, 2012 at 5:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 31, 2012 at 7:10 a.m.
Federal authorities are maintaining their silence about a criminal investigation that led to a raid at the Potter Valley family property where a high-ranking member of Mendocino County law enforcement resides.
The investigation into possible marijuana cultivation has ensnared sheriff's Capt. Randy Johnson, who now is the subject of an internal Sheriff's Office probe to determine if he knew of any illegal activities on the family property. The probe is being conducted by the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office.
Federal sources say 500 marijuana plants were found during the raid.
The case is the latest in a string of marijuana investigations linked to Mendocino County officials or members of their families that in some cases have led to resignations and arrests.
The Oct. 11 federal raid on the property owned by the sheriff's captain and his father, Johnny Johnson, follows a federal crackdown on marijuana cultivation in what's known as the "Emerald Triangle" -- Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties -- despite California voter-approved medical marijuana laws.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said he launched the internal investigation after he was "stonewalled" by federal authorities.
"I want to know the facts," Allman said. "The federal government has not told me one thing, and I need to know if there's any validity to it."
Allman said he would expect federal agents to contact him if a member of his department was suspected of being involved in an illegal activity, but there's been no such contact.
"There's no indication Randy was involved," Allman said, and Johnson is still on the job.
Federal officials will not divulge who or what triggered their investigation, nor have they made any arrests. The search warrant records remain sealed.
The Johnson family has owned the 16-acre compound on Highway 20 for more than three decades. The property is served by a single, private drive but consists of two parcels. The larger, 11-acre parcel is owned jointly by the sheriff's captain and his father and includes their homes, among other structures. The smaller parcel is owned by the elder Johnson and includes numerous rental residences.
Sources familiar with the raid have said that the 500 plants were growing on the parcel owned solely by Johnny Johnson.
"I have never seen any pot growing," Johnny Johnson, 80, said last week during an interview at a trailer he's currently staying in on his property. His home, located next door to Randy Johnson's, is undergoing renovation.
A visit to the property last week revealed no readily visible evidence of marijuana cultivation from the private drive that leads from Highway 20 to the Johnsons' homes. It is standard practice by federal authorities to seize all illegal drugs that agents encounter, according to a spokesman with DEA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Tall fences and hostile tenants on the compound near the highway prevented further exploration of the site.
Another of Johnny Johnson's sons, John Johnson, who leases and operates the Brooktrails Lodge in Willits, also lives on the property.
He is in charge of renting out eight or nine rentals on the property, his father said. The residences are among more than a dozen structures in varying conditions at the site.
Both sons declined to comment on the search warrant served by federal agents, a team led by the DEA and aided by the FBI and IRS.
"You can stop calling me. Don't show up at any of my properties," John Johnson said in a voicemail message.
Randy Johnson voiced similar sentiments and said he cannot discuss the issue because of the internal investigation to determine whether he has any connection to a marijuana operation.
The rentals on the property are difficult to see from Randy Johnson's two-story home because of the terrain and trees, though law enforcement sources said that cultivation of 500 marijuana plants would create a characteristic pungent odor recognizeable from a significant distance.
"I smell it once in awhile," Johnny Johnson acknowledged. But he said he doesn't know where the odor comes from and figured it was for medical use and thus legal in any case.
He said the federal raid took him by surprise.
"I still don't understand it," he said.
Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas confirmed that his internal affairs team has launched the inquiry into into Capt. Johnson. An outside agency typically is called to handle internal investigations when it involves a high-ranking member of law enforcement, he said.
Freitas said an investigator with experience handling cases outside of Sonoma County was assigned to the probe, which was expected to take about 30 days.
Allman said he requested help from the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office. "I have an obligation to my county to find out if he's innocent or involved," Allman said.
"If my department did the investigation, people would say, no matter what the outcome, that it was biased."
Johnson has been at the forefront of Mendocino County's efforts to pave the way for legal channels to allow residents to grow medicinal marijuana.
He was responsible for running the county's now-defunct marijuana permitting program that allowed people with a physician's pot recommendation to grow as many as 99 plants. That role put Johnson into a position of spokesman for the county's program, among the most permissive in the state.
He and a Mendocino County supervisor were subpoenaed to testify in Sonoma County court by the defense for two employees of a Ukiah pot co-op. The employees were arrested during a traffic stop in Sonoma County and charged with transporting pot.
In his 2011 testimony, Johnson described the county permit program and vouched that the defendants were complying with local rules, although he conceded that they apply only in Mendocino County.
The case was dismissed earlier this year, said the defense attorney, Oakland-based Bill Panzer, a co-author of the 1996 medical marijuana ballot initiative passed by voters.
Panzer said most federal investigations he is aware of in Northern California involve more marijuana than 500 plants.
"It has to raise the question: Was he singled out because of his part in the (county) program? He's not only testified in my case, he's been on TV," Panzer said.
Johnson was featured on a news program about marijuana in Northern California that was broadcast on PBS "Frontline."
"If somebody is politically active they target them; if they're in the news they target them," Panzer said.
One longtime law enforcement official said he was not surprised by the federal raid.
He said local law enforcement officers have suspected for some time that marijuana was being grown on the Johnson property but were reluctant to do anything because of Randy Johnson's status in the department.
Law enforcement officials familiar with marijuana detection said that Google satellite images, which were taken in August 2011, show what appear to be several dozen marijuana plants growing on the property.
Mendocino County's tolerant pot culture and local laws that push the boundaries of medical marijuana laws have embroiled multiple layers of government employees in investigations.
Two Mendocino County officials resigned in July. Deputy District Attorney Sergio Fuentes quit after officials found 150 pot plants at his mother's home, where he also lives.
Interim County Counsel Doug Losak resigned after he was arrested on suspicion of having three grams of pot, an infraction, and a concealed weapon, a misdemeanor, during a traffic stop.
The daughter of County Supervisor John Pinches was sentenced in August to three years of supervised probation for growing more than 100 marijuana plants.
In 2009, a public defense attorney's wife was arrested in Utah and found to have more than 100 pounds of marijuana. She was sentenced to probation.
The clashing of local, state and federal marijuana laws have put law enforcement in a "very difficult position," Allman said.
"I would welcome a final decision on the law of marijuana, whatever it is," he said.
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