By JON TEVLIN
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune
August 15, 2005
The cabin needed work. But Gail Darwin, 63, who had come from California, called it a perfect place to retire. She put down $150,000 cash on the $250,000 asking price.
Darwin told locals she had recently inherited money and ran an alternative health practice called the Earth Healing Institute.
"I figured she sold herbal remedies," said a man at Nelson's General Store.
In a way, she did.
Darwin and Joseph Heater, 65, who lived just across the river in Ontario, pleaded guilty last month to possessing 826 pounds of marijuana valued at $4 million. Local and federal authorities caught them with the huge stash stuffed in a trailer this spring in one of the biggest marijuana busts ever made along the border.
Their arrests are a strange tale with a serious point: Minnesota's far northern wilderness, authorities say, appears to be emerging as a pot-smuggling pipeline from Canada to destinations that include the Twin Cities, Chicago and Detroit.
Neither Darwin nor Heater had a previous felony, so at first their arrests seemed like unusual criminal career trajectories for two older citizens.
Their lawyers have since said the pair, who now each face a plea-bargained sentence of 27 months, are mere pawns in the multibillion-dollar trade of "B.C. bud," marijuana cultivated in British Columbia.
"Wrong place at the wrong time," said Heater's attorney, Steve Nelson.
But investigators say their willingness to invest major money in border land suggests they either had substantial financial backing or were preparing to make Minnesota a significant, long-term transfer point for B.C. bud, a choice brand for upscale pot smokers in the United States.
Darwin and Heater, who declined to be interviewed for this story, also were found with high-end countersurveillance equipment, investigators say, including satellite phones and instruments that detect police radio frequencies and infrared monitoring devices.
"It's very sophisticated equipment," said Sgt. Bruce Grothberg of the Koochiching County Sheriff's Department.
Their arrest was the third significant bust involving B.C. bud in Koochiching County in the past two years. But authorities say they have no idea how much more may be coming across the border.
"We've seized more than 1,000 pounds in two years," Grothberg said. "But I don't think we are even scratching the surface."
As it gets tougher to smuggle marijuana along the West Coast, dealers are spreading out across the Canadian border, according to author Robert Sabbag, who ran with a group of B.C. bud couriers for a recent article in Playboy magazine.
And with its wooded, watery and porous border, "Minnesota is as good a place as any to work," he said.
Marijuana production has become a major enterprise in Canada, where penalties for possession are slight. The mayor of Vancouver has even advocated legalization. Forbes magazine estimates the crop's value at $7 billion in British Columbia. In Minnesota's border province, Ontario, authorities say B.C. bud is a $1 billion crop.
Sabbag, who has written several books on the drug trade, said tougher penalties against marijuana in the United States inflate the value of the pot coming from Canada.
And unlike Mexico's drug trade, which is largely controlled by organized criminal groups, the Canadian marijuana trade tends to be more of a mom-and-pop operation, Sabbag said. "There are a lot more rural people, and elderly, paying off mortgages by growing this pot," he said.
That could have been Darwin and Heater's motive. Or they could have been part of a larger and more sophisticated smuggling ring, Sabbag said. "I would guess that if they had 800 pounds, it wasn't their first time," he said.
The Drug Enforcement Administration says dealers can purchase marijuana for $1,500 to $2,000 a pound in Canada, then sell it for $6,000 a pound or more in the United States.
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