MARIJUANA PIPELINE DELIVERS TO NORTHLAND
Crime: A 63-Year-Old Woman Is Busted With 826 Pounds Of Pot
BIRCHDALE, MINN. - The grandmother showed up in this tiny Koochiching County town a day after the "For Sale" sign went up on the old Bauman place, a remote log cabin overlooking the Rainy River and the Canadian border.
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 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.
Little is known about Heater, a retired engineer, married with children and living in Alberta.
But Darwin, whom acquaintances describe as friendly and outgoing, is an exotic figure: She had a reputation in the alternative health field for her work in "deep breathing," according to former colleagues. She also hosted seminars and has a Web page that advertises: "Through activating our solar connection, with profound, deep breathing awareness, the natural flow of energy is reactivated within us."
Grothberg speculated that Darwin had plans to launder the money she earned from the drug trade, a common ploy among B.C. bud dealers.
"One day she came in and said, 'I want to get the (health) center started.
I'm getting ready to retire,' " Lewis said.
He called Darwin and her friends "over-the-hill hippies" trying to pad their retirements.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Grothberg pulled alongside Rainy River and spotted a lone tent deep in "a mosquito hellhole," as he put it.
"Weird," he said. "If they don't have a boat or fishing equipment, something funny is going on."
Grothberg, an area native, had seen the scene before. Sometimes, he said, it's only people getting away from it all. But often he suspects they are waiting for something.
The mosquitoes in the thicket were unbearable. One couple sat listlessly in a car with Nebraska plates. Another couple sat in a tent.
There were a dozen designated camping spots within an hour's drive. But the group had chosen one without a river view but with access to a canal where drugs have been found before.
Grothberg asked a few questions, then notified the Border Patrol.
" 'Kooch County' has490 square miles," he said. "You can drive 70 miles and not see a house. It takes less than a minute to cross the river, and in some places you can walk across. If you want to meet someone in the middle of the river, no one is the wiser."
Though border surveillance has increased, authorities say they cannot cover the seven-county stretch along the Minnesota border around the clock. They say they do what they can and hope for the occasional big bust.
Grothberg said he figures Darwin and Heater were players in a larger, lucrative drug-smuggling operation. "They'll take the punishment, maybe get paid for it. Do their time and move on," he said.
"But," he added, "I think we got their pension."