A Fort Bragg resident allegedly played a key role in supplying marijuana to a Kansas drug ring, according to court documents that detail the trail of evidence assembled during a four-year investigation.
But investigators have shed little light on the role played by six other longtime Mendocino Coast residents accused of conspiring to sell marijuana to a drug ring in the heartland of America more than 1,500 miles away.
The defendants are familiar names on the North Coast, with ties to logging, construction and the tiny volunteer fire department in the coastal hamlet of Mendocino.
"It is a very confusing thing. These are associates, friends," Mendocino Fire Chief Ed O'Brien said. "It's very difficult to watch them get tangled up in something."
A federal official declined to describe the suspected involvement of the seven North Coast residents, who are named with 36 other people in a 103-count indictment outlining a scheme that allegedly raked in nearly $17 million in illegal proceeds.
A trove of documents filed in federal courts offer glimpses at the investigation, which has unleashed an outpouring of support from the Mendocino Coast suspects' families, their friends and colleagues in letters asking a judge to release them.
"What I think you have here is a large-scale conspiracy to sell cocaine and pot in Kansas that peripherally involved people in California who allegedly helped this guy get some marijuana," said Stewart Hanlon, a San Francisco attorney representing Mendocino contractor Jeff Wall.
Wall and fellow Mendocino residents John Paul McMillan, McMillan's wife Erin M. Keller, Henry McCusker and Richard W. Smith Jr. all are accused of one count of conspiring to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute drugs, including marijuana and cocaine, court files show.
McMillan faces two additional charges of possessing marijuana with intent to sell in Kansas.
Fort Bragg resident James Soderling and his wife, Sarah, face the most serious charges among the seven North Coast residents ensnared in the case.
James Soderling is "a known high grade marijuana distributor and a high grade marijuana broker," according to court documents. He is accused of delivering marijuana in a wooden crate to Hayward, where the drugs were shipped to Kansas.
Prosecutors said Sarah Soderling was "intimately and jointly involved" in the shipment of large quantities of marijuana, according to a judge's ruling that released the couple from custody but required them to live apart and not discuss the case.
"When her husband was initially taken into custody, Ms. Soderling remotely erased the contents of his cellphone in an apparent effort to destroy evidence of the crimes," the judge said.
All seven Mendocino County residents have pleaded not guilty before federal judges in San Francisco and Kansas.
Kansas investigators stumbled across the drug ring in 2008, when a man arrested during a domestic violence call offered information on local drug sales. Federal agents joined the investigation into marijuana, methamphetamine and cocaine sales in 2011, said Jim Cross, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom.
Investigators traced the marijuana shipments to Hayward by listening to telephone calls made by the Kansas suspects, according to court documents. James Soderling allegedly transported the marijuana to Hayward, according to court documents.
McMillan's lawyer, notable marijuana criminal defense attorney William Panzer, described the investigation as a "giant conspiracy."