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.