1987 Marijuana bust revisited
Ask around and what New York Mills is best known for is Lund Boats, girls basketball of the 1970s and '80s, and the biggest marijuana bust, at the time, in state history. Twenty years later and the famous drug bust still comes up in conversation,...
Ask around and what New York Mills is best known for is Lund Boats, girls basketball of the 1970s and '80s, and the biggest marijuana bust, at the time, in state history. Twenty years later and the famous drug bust still comes up in conversation, with locals joking and carrying the state's largest marijuana bust of 1987 as a sort of badge of honor for the community.
Boats. Basketball. Drug Bust.
Twenty years ago last week - Oct. 24, 1987 - law enforcement agents raided a farm north of New York Mills and seized 20 tons of marijuana with an estimated street value of $20 million. According to newspaper reports at the time those figures later doubled to 40 tons and $40 million after federal officials seized the farm.
Arrested and taken into custody were 17 people, all from Kentucky, who purchased and moved on to the farm about six months prior to the big bust.
Agents seized the marijuana in barns, silos and storage sheds. Authorities also found mature, uncultivated marijuana plants in a nearby field. According to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court, officers "searched the farm area and discovered a highly sophisticated growing and packaging system."
There were "No Trespassing" signs, men in camouflage carrying guns and guard dogs at the farm, making sure nobody wandered onto the property. These good ol' boys from Kentucky weren't real neighborly, and in the end, that's what did them in. Neighbors became suspicious of all the secrecy and odd behavior, with nobody allowed on the property and vehicles coming and going in the middle of the night.
A story in the NY Mills Herald said the arrests followed about a week of investigation by the Otter Tail County Sheriff's Department and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
A number of people in the neighborhood, who asked not to be identified at the time, said that the volume of traffic in and out of the farm, at odd times day and night, was one of the more unusual occurences.
Also noted was a tendency of the farm's residents, when returning, to drive past the property then double back. "When someone drove into their yard, it looked like there were people ducking and hiding," said one neighbor in a Herald story that year. "As the summer went on, the farm's residents added more security devices, including a trip wire at the end of the drive that would trigger an alarm if someone drove in."
That kind of behavior draws attention in rural Minnesota where people need to know their neighbors' business.
Alan "Lindy" Linda, who had the hardware store in town in 1987, went out on regular service calls and remembers after the bust some of the neighbors had real negative reactions to the Kentucky crew growing marijuana. The fact the new residents weren't real friendly seemed, in Lindy's opinion, to bother local farmers more than what the farmers were growing.
"Leading up to the bust was more of an accumulative thing," Lindy said. "They didn't shop in town. They didn't go to church in town. And they didn't buy building materials in town,"
Lindy recalls the final insult, the way he understood it, was when someone was lost pulling a trailer full of cattle and pulled into the farm. The Kentucky farmers refused to let him on the property and turned him around. Word apparently quickly spread with this lack of "Minnesota Nice" and the bust happened soon after.
Looking back on the situation now, Lindy laughs at how these guys established a successful operation and could have continued for a while had they not out-smarted themselves. These Kentuckians, thinking they were smarter than the local population, decided to isolate themselves and not have anything to do with the community in hopes everybody would leave them and their business alone.
That philosophy didn't fly. Soon law enforcement sent up a plane and discovered marijuana plants growing between corn rows.
The big bust
The bust went down similar to that of a Trojan horse. Thirteen law enforcement officials were in on the initial bust, including the BCA, Otter Tail County Sheriff's Office, New York Mills and Fergus Falls police, and the Department of Natural Resources. The men raided the farm in a pickup and a trailer that held hidden agents.
A trip wire on the road sounded a warning bell in the house, and people in the barn were warned with radios.
A man and a woman were apprehended immediately. The other suspects fled and were rounded up over the course of several hours. All suspects arrested were wearing survival-type army fatigues, and some had weapons.
There were 15-20 guns confiscated, including semi-automatic AR-15 rifles. Of those that fled, two suspects were arrested about midnight after they knocked on the door of a farm house about one mile to the north.
Raymond Lee of New York Mills was a senior in high school in 1987 and working for his dad, Don Lee. They were called on to haul the marijuana to a nearby field where the pot was burned. Raymond and Don hauled 64 loads of marijuana from the barn and other buildings to the field where it was burned. The marijuana already packaged was kept by the Otter Tail County Sheriff's Department, for use as evidence. Law enforcement officials estimated that the plants still standing in the field equaled the amount of the drug that was burned. The plants left in the field were destroyed by plowing them under.
Raymond worked with the agents to clean up the farm and recalls the barn full of marijuana, which was hung on wires to dry. He said the drug farmers used a trash compactor to put the weed in cubes, which were then wrapped in cellophane. Buildings were full, silos were full, and the barn was full of marijuana.
Then, Raymond recalls, when they figured the place was cleaned out someone discovered a couple large mounds behind the barn covered with tarps. They looked like regular compost piles but low and behold it was more marijuana.
The drug traffickers had bought the land on a contract for deed from retired dairy farmers Kenneth and Faith Rimpila. The government took control of the farm on Feb. 25. Prior to that, the Otter Tail County Sheriff had been in charge of the property since the drug raid. The Rimpila farm was purchased in the name of a Jenkins in April 1987. The seizure included 355 acres and the dairy farmstead. The farm is in sections 14 and 23 of Homestead Township.
The farm has since been sold and most of the buildings remain in place.
The 17 Kentucky residents arrested in Minnesota's largest marijuana raid pleaded for leniency in May of 1988 before a federal judge sentenced them to terms ranging from 20 years to six months.
"We're just good ol' country folk and we're not trying to do nobody no harm," a 22-year-old defendant said before the judge sentenced her to five years in prison.
Many defendants cited economic hardship and unemployment as the motive for becoming hands on the 275-acre marijuana farm. The defendants grew an estimated 48 tons of marijuana -- about 96,000 plants worth an estimated $40 million - interspersed with corn.
The group's leader, John Robert Boon, 44, of Springfield, Kentucky, received the largest sentence -- 20 years. Federal prison records show he was released in 2002.
Before being sentenced, Boone argued that 20 years was too much time for growing marijuana.
The story drew media attention from around the region. It was a compelling story of drugs, guns and rural America.
The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead ran an editorial a few days after the bust.
One of the lessons of the big marijuana farm-factory bust last week near New York Mills is that being unfriendly in rural Minnesota gets folks' attention.
Neighborliness is so much a part of life on the farms and in the small towns of the region, that the first indication of strange goings-on at the Otter Tail County farmstead was the downright hostility of the owners.
The other lesson is that the 17 suspects apprehended in the morning raid can't be all that bright. After all, they went out of their way to isolate themselves from the community, thus providing grist for the rumor mill.
Rural people understandably are curious when farms change ownership. It's traditional to go over and meet the new neighbors, maybe bring a pie or offer to help in some way. So it was a bit out of the ordinary when the new owners of the old Rimpila place post "dead end" and "no trespassing" signs on a township road leading to the farm. Even town residents know a public road can't be closed like that.
If the nasty signs weren't enough to raise eyebrows, the newcomers didn't seem to understand farming in the Upper Midwest. They planted their corn in June, a lot later than their neighbors. They harvested only a part of their alfalfa, rolled it into big round bales and stacked them in a line around the driveway. Anyone who knows anything about Minnesota winters knows not to stack hay bales along a roadway; they make snowdrifts.
They had guard dogs on the place. Most farmers have a dog or two. But guard dogs? What were they guarding? Alfalfa bales? Corn?
All in all, the marijuana processors made such a fuss about trying to stay invisible they became the talk of every bar and coffee shop in the region.
There are few secrets in rural Minnesota. Small towns and farm communities usually are friendly places where people help each other and sometimes are a tad nosey about each other's business. So it's no surprise the big illegal pot-processing venture, complete with unfriendly "farmers" and guard dogs, was exposed and destroyed.
Norm and Jean Koehler live just down the road from the famous farm. Their son Loren lives and farms next to them.
That summer in 1987, Jean recalled in a newspaper story a time when Loren drove onto the place while looking for some neighbors' stray cattle.
"When he drove on the yard, they came out and stood there with their hands up, as if to say, 'That's far enough,'" Jean Koehler said at the time. "The feeling on the yard was very strange, very tense."