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Documents outline links between Kansas drug ring and Mendocino Coast

Published: Thursday, November 22, 2012 at 7:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 22, 2012 at 7:23 p.m.

A Fort Bragg resident allegedly played a key role in supplying marijuana to a Kansas drug ring, according to court documents that detail the trail of evidence assembled during a four-year investigation.

But investigators have shed little light on the role played by six other longtime Mendocino Coast residents accused of conspiring to sell marijuana to a drug ring in the heartland of America more than 1,500 miles away.

The defendants are familiar names on the North Coast, with ties to logging, construction and the tiny volunteer fire department in the coastal hamlet of Mendocino.

“It is a very confusing thing. These are associates, friends,” Mendocino Fire Chief Ed O’Brien said. “It’s very difficult to watch them get tangled up in something.”

A federal official declined to describe the suspected involvement of the seven North Coast residents, who are named with 36 other people in a 103-count indictment outlining a scheme that allegedly raked in nearly $17 million in illegal proceeds.

A trove of documents filed in federal courts offer glimpses at the investigation, which has unleashed an outpouring of support from the Mendocino Coast suspects’ families, their friends and colleagues in letters asking a judge to release them.

“What I think you have here is a large-scale conspiracy to sell cocaine and pot in Kansas that peripherally involved people in California who allegedly helped this guy get some marijuana,” said Stewart Hanlon, a San Francisco attorney representing Mendocino contractor Jeff Wall.

Wall and fellow Mendocino residents John Paul McMillan, McMillan’s wife Erin M. Keller, Henry McCusker and Richard W. Smith Jr. all are accused of one count of conspiring to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute drugs, including marijuana and cocaine, court files show.

McMillan faces two additional charges of possessing marijuana with intent to sell in Kansas.

Fort Bragg resident James Soderling and his wife, Sarah, face the most serious charges among the seven North Coast residents ensnared in the case.

James Soderling is “a known high grade marijuana distributor and a high grade marijuana broker,” according to court documents. He is accused of delivering marijuana in a wooden crate to Hayward, where the drugs were shipped to Kansas.

Prosecutors said Sarah Soderling was “intimately and jointly involved” in the shipment of large quantities of marijuana, according to a judge’s ruling that released the couple from custody but required them to live apart and not discuss the case.

“When her husband was initially taken into custody, Ms. Soderling remotely erased the contents of his cellphone in an apparent effort to destroy evidence of the crimes,” the judge said.

All seven Mendocino County residents have pleaded not guilty before federal judges in San Francisco and Kansas.

Kansas investigators stumbled across the drug ring in 2008, when a man arrested during a domestic violence call offered information on local drug sales. Federal agents joined the investigation into marijuana, methamphetamine and cocaine sales in 2011, said Jim Cross, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom.

Investigators traced the marijuana shipments to Hayward by listening to telephone calls made by the Kansas suspects, according to court documents. James Soderling allegedly transported the marijuana to Hayward, according to court documents.

McMillan’s lawyer, notable marijuana criminal defense attorney William Panzer, described the investigation as a “giant conspiracy.”

Hanlon and Panzer said the allegations against their clients are vague.

“It appears there is some guy in Kansas who likes to deal drugs. They busted him,” Panzer said. “Now anybody that anybody said might have sold drugs to him is now accused of being involved. That’s what it appears to be, but that’s not how the law works.”

San Francisco civil rights attorney J. Tony Serra is representing McCusker, an accomplished amateur golfer who is the only Mendocino resident to remain in custody. Serra could not immediately be reached for comment.

McCusker, who goes by Hank, co-owns two vacation rental properties on the coast. Family and friends wrote impassioned letters of support on his behalf asking a judge to grant his release, including his business partner for 20 years, John Fliessbach.

“Hank is just really one of those special people. He is a genuine and caring person,” Fliessbach said.

He declined to comment on the allegations against his partner.

The other Mendocino residents, including parents of young children, are at home with their families.

Two of the defendants, McMillan and Keller, have returned to duty at the volunteer fire department in Mendocino. After they were released from custody, the two longtime volunteer firefighters asked O’Brien if they could respond to emergency calls.

“I basically welcomed them back with a big hug, said I’m glad to have them back, hope their kids are OK, Keep your chin up,” O’Brien said.

Keller has been an emergency medical technician for about 10 years and McMillan an EMT for 11 years, the chief said.

“John Paul has jumped on a jet ski, gone out and pulled people out of the water,” he said. “He’s one of my guys. If he shows up, I know that part of that job will get done.”

Two of the other suspects also have links to the town’s volunteer fire department. McCusker briefly joined the department and Wall was a dependable volunteer until he resigned after moving just outside the fire district.

The case is the talk of the town.

“There’s a lot of talk, there’s a lot of rumor,” said O’Brien, who also runs a leather goods shop in town.

“Everybody’s buzzing,” he said. “I’ve been told things that were not true, and I’ve passed on things that aren’t true and I hate that. There are not definitive facts yet in the case.”

Soderling is the only Mendocino Coast resident with clear ties to Kansas. He lived in Lawrence, Kansas, for at least 20 years and has family in the area, court files show.

He pleaded not guilty in Kansas to seven counts of possession with intent to distribute marijuana, one count of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, one count of using a phone to facilitate a drug transaction as well as conspiracy to possess and distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine and 1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana.

When the first federal complaint was filed in June, Soderling and his wife were on the road in Utah. He surrendered to Lawrence police, court documents show.

The Soderlings are listed as defendants on a document seeking asset forfeiture from drug sales that states agents seized $84,700 in cash from a FedEx package en route from a Kansas motorsports company to a business called California Connections in Hayward.

Soderling’s attorney, Christopher J. Angles of Kansas City, Mo., said his client was released on bail. A judge ordered him to remain in Kansas.

His wife, Sarah Soderling, is to remain in Fort Bragg with her parents and the couple’s infant.

Angles said the case is still in its preliminary stages and he couldn’t yet comment on the allegations.

“This case has international reach, defendants from Mexico and defendants from Canada,” Angles said. “I would consider this a vast-ranging alleged conspiracy.”

A tentative trial date is set for June 2013.

Wall, reached at home, said he did not know Soderling.

Other defendants didn’t respond to phone calls or messages seeking comment.

“I don’t think any of the people charged in this case would say it’s OK to ship drugs to another state,” said Hanlon, representing Wall. “Jeff (Wall) has pled not guilty and I have not seen evidence that he was involved.”

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