Fort Bragg couple admits involvement in $17 million drug ring
Published: Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 8:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 8:30 p.m.
A Fort Bragg couple has admitted involvement in a $17 million drug ring as brokers helping to supply high-grade California marijuana to Kansas drug dealers.
James Soderling and his wife, Sarah, now face 10 years to life in federal prison after entering guilty pleas as part of a deal with prosecutors to testify in the case, according to court documents.
Their agreement further ensnares five other longtime Mendocino Coast residents with ties to firefighting, construction and local art, part of a second wave of defendants later implicated in the conspiracy, and who still maintain their innocence.
Business records and sales ledgers link Mendocino residents Henry McCusker, Richard Smith, Jeffrey Wall, John Paul McMillan and his wife, Erin Keller, with marijuana sold to Kansas drug dealers, according to the plea agreement.
They are among 43 people prosecutors accused in a 103-count indictment with various levels of involvement in the drug-sales scheme.
"There is so much going on (in the case) and so little of it involves my client," said San Francisco attorney Zenia Gilg, who is representing Keller.
Attorneys for the Mendocino Coast defendants have fought to keep the accused at home with their families, at their jobs and in some cases answering emergency calls as members of the Mendocino Volunteer Fire Department as the case plays out in a Kansas City, Kan., federal courtroom. Only McCusker remains in federal custody.
Prosecutors allege two Lawrence, Kan., men were at the helm of a broad network of people buying and selling drugs. The men profited by nearly $17 million from selling more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana and 5 kilograms of cocaine between January 2005 and July 30, 2012.
The case began in 2008 when a man arrested during a domestic violence investigation in Kansas offered up information on local drug dealers. Federal agents got involved in 2011.
The two main players, Los Rovell Dahda, 30, and Chad Eugene Bauman, 33, both from Lawrence, were originally buying pot from Mexican and Canadian sources, including a former professional hockey player, court files show.
When that became too expensive, they found marijuana sources in California, where they could buy pot for $1,800 to $2,800 per pound. They were able to sell it for from $3,500 to $4,800 per pound.
The indictment originally was filed in July and revised to include the Mendocino residents in October.
"This case is really about something that happened in Kansas," said Stuart Hanlon, a San Francisco attorney representing Wall. "Right now Jeff and the others have pled not guilty. He is out of custody, working."
The Mendocino-area defendants are accused of selling marijuana primarily to Bauman.
The Soderlings are accused of the deepest involvement in the scheme.
Investigators described James Soderling, who previously lived in Lawrence for at least 20 years, as a known drug dealer and said that his wife, Sarah, was intimately involved. Agents linked them to the Kansas dealers through tapped phone calls, emails and intercepted packages.
In one instance described in the plea deal, detectives found 56 pounds of marijuana hidden in a Utah hotel room in June after the Soderlings left. They apparently hid the drugs after learning authorities raided their Fort Bragg home, court files show.
Their attorneys could not be reached.
McMillan and Keller are longtime Mendocino residents and volunteer firefighters and have been a couple for about seven years, recently marrying. They have four children between them, including two teens still at home.
They allegedly began distributing high-grade marijuana in late 2010, according to the plea agreement.
The couple traveled to Kansas City and Lawrence at least seven times in 2011. They had a small marijuana garden but also secured pot from other growers to sell, according to the documents.
But Keller's attorney questioned the evidence against her client, whom she said runs an art studio in Fort Bragg. The couple traveled to Kansas to visit Keller's friend, who was having a difficult time, Gilg said.
"She told them that, when the detectives interviewed her, she said, 'I went to Kansas City, my friend was pregnant and I was worried about her,' " Gilg said. "That's the kind of person she is, that's consistent with her character."
Still, federal prosecutors claim the couple shipped marijuana to Kansas, including 40 pounds in one shipment in December 2010. They would then travel to Kansas themselves to make sure the packages arrived and collect cash, according to court files.
McMillan's attorney James Bustamante said he's continuing to fight the charges.
"He's a great guy, a really productive, wonderful asset to the community before this happened. He still is now, and he will be afterward," Bustamante said.
McCusker, 48, is an accomplished amateur golfer who co-owns two vacation rental properties on the coast.
Court files described McCusker as a marijuana grower who since 2009 has shipped "hundreds of pounds" of marijuana to Kansas.
McCusker introduced Smith to Bauman, according to court files.
The documents note several instances in which packages of marijuana sent to Kansas came from Smith and Wall:
"Two ledgers seized from Chad Bauman's bedroom on June 13, 2012, showed during one delivery that Richard Smith had supplied Bauman 275 pounds of marijuana and Jeffrey Wall supplied Bauman 151 pounds."
Wall is a contractor and former volunteer firefighter who had a medical marijuana recommendation, said Hanlon, his attorney.
"We'll continue to fight the case," Hanlon said. "Jeffrey is a good man, and if he was involved in getting some marijuana then we'll deal with that, but right now we're investigating."
Smith's attorney couldn't be reached.
Several of the attorneys said the scope of the case, with 43 defendants and 103 counts, is unusual.
Federal conspiracy charges essentially hold each person accountable to the same degree, regardless of their level of involvement.
"The manner in which this case was charged is a clear example of overcharging," Bustamante said.
"I've never seen such a thing, it's a beast," Gilg said.
On Jan. 7, all defendants and their attorneys crowded into a Kansas City courtroom for a procedural hearing.
Since January, at least 30 of the co-defendants, including the Soderlings, have signed a plea agreement or are scheduled to enter into the agreement early next week.
Their attorneys have just begun to go through thousands of pages of evidence supplied to them from the U.S. Attorney's Office District of Kansas, several said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Terra Morehead had not yet made an offer Thursday to the second wave of Mendocino County defendants.
The case has rattled the cliff-side town of Mendocino, where many of the defendants have close ties and young children at home.
"I'm just really hoping that I can maintain that beautiful family. It's a big responsibility," Gilg said.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or email@example.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.