Federal agents were preparing to raid the secluded Hopland home of Mendocino County District Attorney Norman Vroman at the time of his death to search for maturing marijuana plants and a possible stash of illegal weapons.
Agents said overflights had detected at least 25 marijuana plants growing on Vroman's property at the end of Sanel Valley Road.
Investigators also suspected Vroman, a self-described "gun nut," may have added to his personal gun collection by taking home weapons seized during drug and other raids or bought with drug-related asset forfeiture money, according to federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents.
Three days before Vroman died Sept. 21 after a massive heart attack, the FBI's Public Corruption Unit began reviewing results of an investigation involving agents from the ATF and the Drug Enforcement Agency, according to internal documents obtained by The Press Democrat and statements from agents who asked not to be identified.
Documents show federal investigators were completing affidavits in support of warrants to search Vroman's home when he suffered the heart attack Sept. 19 as he prepared to drive to work. Vroman was found by a family member slumped over the wheel of his county-owned car. Vroman died two days later at a Santa Rosa hospital.
Raleigh Vroman said Friday she was unaware of a federal investigation into her husband's activities.
"I don't know what this is about. I don't know anything about marijuana," she said, refusing further comment.
The federal government doesn't recognize California's medical marijuana laws. Vroman was the first district attorney in the state to implement identity cards for patients who have a doctor's permission to use marijuana. Whether Vroman obtained one himself is unknown because confidentiality laws prevent that disclosure.
Documents show tensions rose within federal agencies as investigators pressed to raid the home of a high-profile district attorney who at the time of his death was engaged in a tough re-election fight with Fort Bragg attorney Meredith Lintott.
Vroman's name remains on the Nov. 7 ballot, and there is an active campaign to have voters select his name on Election Day.
FBI spokesman Joseph Shadler said Friday that "given the political sensitivities involved, we won't be making any comments."
In a written statement, an ATF investigator said the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco believed the agents had "probable cause to issue a search warrant for marijuana on Vroman's property, but they refused."
Luke Macaulay, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco, said the office's policy is to neither confirm nor deny an investigation.
After the apparent refusal by the U.S. Attorney's Office, ATF and DEA agents took the case to the FBI's Public Corruption Unit, according to documents and a source close to the case.
Local authorities were deliberately kept out of the federal loop because of fear of leaks to Vroman's office. Vroman and federal authorities often had been at odds since he served nine months in federal prison in 1993 for failure to file income taxes.
In addition, local authorities said federal agents were aware of Vroman's close political and personal ties with former Sheriff Tony Craver. As a result, county Sheriff Kevin Broin and other high-ranking sheriff's officials were in the dark until the end.
"We learned about the federal investigation the day Mr. Vroman was stricken at his home," Capt. Kurt Smallcomb said.
Craver, reached Friday by phone at his new home in Caldwell, Idaho, said he was surprised to learn of the federal inquiry.
"I think it highly unlikely Norm would have contraband, whether marijuana or illegal weapons, at his home," he said.
About the suspicions of federal agents, Craver said, "It's too bad the search warrants weren't served so this kind of stuff could have been cleared up once and for all."
Interim District Attorney Keith Faulder, Vroman's chief deputy, said he learned of the investigation after Vroman was stricken and entered the hospital. Faulder said ATF investigators called and questioned staff members about serial numbers identifying two submachine guns and silencers that were kept in a gun safe in the District Attorney's Office.
The federal investigation stopped days later when Vroman died, and no warrants were issued.
The marijuana allegedly growing on Vroman's property "vanished" the day Vroman was rushed to the hospital, according to documents outlining the DEA investigation.
Since Vroman's death, family and supporters have campaigned aggressively to block the election of Lintott. Vroman's name remains on the Nov. 7 ballot, and if more votes are cast for him than for Lintott, the county Board of Supervisors will appoint a new district attorney.
In the meantime, a legal fight is being waged in the state Court of Appeal, First District, in San Francisco over Mendocino County's decision to proceed with the Nov. 7 election rather than setting a special election. In either case, Faulder has made it clear he wants to succeed Vroman.
Neither Lintott nor her campaign consultant, Terry Price of Santa Rosa, would comment Friday on the Vroman investigation.
In May, it was disclosed that since 1999 Vroman's office had spent $646,348 of $853,122 that flowed into a special "asset forfeiture" account. The total represented the amount of drug-related money and other assets, including guns and cars, seized during county drug raids by local, state and federal agencies. The distribution is overseen by the state Department of Justice.
Vroman's spending included the two submachine guns stored in the office, firearm sound suppressors, a gun safe for the District Attorney's Office and $39,100 in firearms training for his staff.