Three Mendocino County marijuana farmers and a former police officer from Texas have filed a new federal lawsuit alleging widespread theft, corruption, and coverups among law enforcement officials policing the Emerald Triangle, the Northern California region world-renown for the cannabis grown there.
The lawsuit alleges “hundreds of acts of extortion, theft, and robbery of marijuana, guns and cash” by law enforcement officials from at least four separate agencies, including the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office, Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Rohnert Park Police Department.
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Interactive Corkboard: Who's Accused of Doing What?
Click each photo to see how law enforcement agencies, current and former officers, and alleged victims are connected amid the complex web of accusations involving theft, extortion, and conspiracies.
“This is about corrupt police officers that are doing something far worse than growing or possessing cannabis,” said former Texas police officer Zeke Flatten, who says two men impersonating federal law enforcement officers pulled him over and robbed him of three pounds of marijuana as he drove through southern Mendocino County in late 2017.
While one of his alleged robbers, former Rohnert Park police officer Joseph Huffaker, was indicted earlier this year on federal charges, the other man who Flatten says robbed him on the shoulder of Highway 101 has never been identified. The new lawsuit, however, points the finger at former Mendocino County Sheriff’s Sgt. Bruce Smith, who ran the Mendocino County marijuana eradication team and now works as an investigator for the Lake County District Attorney’s Office.
“[I had] all kinds of people telling me that they’ve been ripped off by Bruce Smith,” Flatten said. "Finally, I found a photo of him and it just struck me.”
Smith has not been charged with a crime and his attorney declined to comment on the story, referring us to a spokesperson for Mendocino County who did not respond to our request.
Another former police officer, Sgt. Brendon “Jacy” Tatum, was federally charged alongside Huffaker with conspiracy to commit extortion “under color of official right” for stealing cash and cannabis from numerous drivers along the Sonoma-Mendocino County border. Tatum faces additional charges of tax evasion and falsifying records in a federal investigation.
Flatten says Tatum wasn’t one of the two men who robbed him, but the FBI accused the former officer of creating a false police report and press release that attempted to discredit Flatten when he went public with his story to independent Humboldt County based-journalist Kym Kemp in early 2018.
“They’re actually a gang with badges,” Flatten said. “That’s what these guys are.”
Tatum’s attorney didn’t respond to NBC Bay Area’s request for comment. Heather Noel Phillips, an attorney representing Huffaker, provided a statement saying in part, “[Huffaker] did not do this and we are confident that a neutral jury will see that.”
'It Just Didn’t Add Up'
The three growers joining Flatten as plaintiffs – Chris Gurr, Ann Marie Borges and Will Knight – say their cannabis businesses were going through the legal Mendocino County permitting process when officials from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office raided their farms, claiming they were illegally diverting water.
“So many things were off with the whole eradication,” Borges said. “It just didn’t add up. I couldn’t understand what had happened.”
Gorges and Burr, former high school sweethearts, bought their property five years ago with dreams of joining the first wave of cannabis farmers in Mendocino County.
“We wanted to do everything right,” Gurr said. “We wanted to be the poster child.”
Fifteen miles away, Knight had a similar vision.
“My goal all along was to do this legally,” Knight said. “I really did not like dealing with the way the black market operated.”
Mendocino County’s former interim agricultural commissioner, Diane Curry, said all three growers were given provisional county permits to grow marijuana as they worked towards compliance with the county’s new program.
“They were doing everything that they needed to do to become compliant,” Curry said.
But in June of 2017, Borges and Gurr say a neighbor reported them to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, accusing them of illegally pulling water from a nearby creek. Two months later, their property was raided by state and county law enforcement officers.
“They had handguns that were drawn,” Borges said. “They were looking like they were ready to shoot someone.”
“And I thought, ‘Wow, it’s kind of embarrassing that they’re lost. They’re in a legal garden.”
The couple says state Fish and Wildlife officers hauled off their marijuana plants in the back of pickup trucks without offering any evidence their well was actually taking water from the creek.
A study paid for by the farmers soon found the well’s water likely wasn’t coming from the creek, and they were never charged with a crime related to the raid.
“The reality has set in that all of our hard work, all of the money that we invested is gone,” Gurr said. “Everything was destroyed.”
Will Knight says he also thought it was a mistake when officers from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office raided his farm the following month.
“I came outside and there were camouflaged guys coming over the gate, the fences, pointing [automatic weapons],” Knight said.
Knight was accused of illegally diverting water from a spring on his property to irrigate his marijuana plants and was charged with three felonies nearly three years after the raid. Knight pled not guilty and continues to fight the case in court.
Curry said the state and county officers should have never raided either property.
“They didn’t care what documentation you had,” Curry said. “They didn’t care that you were working with the county. They didn’t care.”
The lawsuit alleges the water diversion claims were just a ploy to conduct the raids and seize cash, guns, and marijuana. They question whether a Napa winery facing water diversion claims would be treated the same way and say the raids have crippled their businesses.
“My goal all along was to be able to do this legally and eliminate the black market,” Knight said. “I was extremely transparent with our growing practices, including our water usage.”
The growers say there’s no documentation showing that thousands of pounds of marijuana taken from their farms was ever, in fact, destroyed, and they now believe much of it was likely stolen.
“Before I moved out here, I would never have imagined this would be going on,” Gurr said. “In fact, I think your viewers are probably like, ‘No way, law enforcement doesn’t do that.’ Well, yeah. They do. They, really, really do. Hopefully this will raise some awareness of that and not just help us, but help all the people that have become victims of dirty cops.”
Gurr and Borges were never charged with a crime, but Will Knight faces several felonies stemming from the alleged water diversion and marijuana grow.
According to the growers, Smith was the only officer from the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office present at the 2017 raids on the property owned by Will Knight and the property Gurr and Borges own together. Fish and Wildlife Lt. Steve White, now retired, was also at both raids and is accused of conspiring with Smith and others to steal marijuana.
“There is no chain of custody,” said long-time civil rights attorney John Scott, who’s representing all four plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “There’s nothing to document what happens to the marijuana after it leaves these farms.”
“I believe in my heart of hearts it is more likely than not that tons of missing marijuana were stolen and sold. That’s what I believe and that’s what we have alleged.”
Attorneys representing Smith and White declined to comment for the story, as did the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, saying the agency doesn’t comment on lawsuits. But in a taped deposition earlier this year tied to a separate lawsuit filed by Gurr and Borges, Smith said it would be foolish of any officer to steal marijuana.
“You would be an idiot,” Smith said. “I know people do it, which just blows my mind why people would even think they could do that and not get caught. It’s beyond my belief that people are that stupid.”
In his deposition, Smith said the department’s policy was to bury any seized marijuana that was not kept as evidence, also noting there were safeguards against corruption.
“We would check our evidence logs to make sure everything was booked that was reported,” Smith said. “We would do self-audits, we would photograph, oftentimes videotape the scene.”
But Smith told the plaintiffs’ attorney his former department does not shoot video of officers burying the marijuana they seize.
In a deposition tied to the same lawsuit, White said marijuana taken from Borges and Gurr was put in a dump truck and buried.
“[The marijuana] was removed from the property and put in the back of a dump truck at the [County of Mendocino Marijuana Enforcement Team],” White said. “And from the COMMET office, that dump truck would be filled with other marijuana and then be buried.”
The lawsuit also targets two of the former top officers within the department, former Sheriff Tom Allman and former Undersheriff Randy Johnson, accusing them of being part of a cabal of corrupt law enforcement officials that profited off of extortion and helped cover the tracks of dirty cops.
Scott said there could be hundreds of potential victims scattered throughout the remote corners of the Emerald Triangle. Before legalization, he said, residents engaged in the marijuana business had little recourse against corrupt cops.
“You’re going to call the police and admit you’re illegally growing or transporting marijuana? I don’t think so,” Scott said. “Who are you going to call? Ghostbusters?”
One such grower, who NBC Bay Area is not identifying because they fear retaliation, said Bruce Smith stole thousands of dollars in cash and jewelry during a raid on their marijuana grow. NBC Bay Area reviewed court records that confirm the grower’s property was raided and that Smith was present.
“Your house is turned totally upside down,” the grower said. “So, by the time you are let back into your home you really have no idea what they’ve taken.”
The grower said they understood the potential risks when entering the underground cannabis economy, but now fears for their safety.
“When I started into the underground market, I always knew there was a risk to get arrested. If you do the crime, you better be able to do the time. I was all down for that. I was not down for being robbed by law enforcement, being intimidated by law enforcement.”
'Hollering in the Wind'
Smith’s attorney declined to comment for the story. The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office and Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office also declined to comment until the legal matter was resolved, as did Allman, who now works as a deputy in Humboldt County after retiring at the end of 2019, one year into his new term as sheriff.
“Obviously there’s a lot of pointing fingers and hollering in the wind. They’re getting their weed taken,” said former Undersheriff Randy Johnson when reached by phone by NBC Bay Area.
“I get there are areas of the country where that stuff happens, but this is not us. Not anything I was aware of or I would have dealt with this swiftly. The sheriff (Allman) and I both have a record doling out proper discipline, including termination, when needed.”
Attorneys representing the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office have filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit, calling it “unsupported” in a court filing and stating “[The lawsuit] fails in every way – aside from its entertainment value.”
'Light is Death Police Cockroach'
As Flatten describes it, the story does sound like it could come out of a movie.
He was in town from Texas working out the details on a legal marijuana business he hoped to launch, driving south on Highway 101 just north of the Sonoma-Mendocino County line, when he says an unmarked SUV with flashing police lights pulled up behind him.
He says he pulled off the highway and two men emerged from the vehicle, identifying themselves as agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives doing marijuana interdiction.
“There was not a badge, there was not a name tag,” Flatten said. “Matter of fact, there was a half-circle style patch that had been removed because I could see the stitching where they had removed the patch from his shoulder.”
Within five minutes, Flatten said the men took three pounds of medical marijuana, photographed his driver’s license, and drove off.
“I knew immediately that I got robbed,” Flatten said. “Now it was, ‘who did it’ and ‘how are we going to uncover this?’”
Flatten soon filed reports about the alleged robbery with the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office and Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office but said neither department investigated the claims. Both agencies declined to comment on the allegations, citing the pending lawsuit.
Despite that, Flatten said some of the puzzle pieces began falling into place. He went public with his story and later identified one of his alleged robbers as Huffaker after seeing a photo of the former officer.
Flatten – and seven other people with similar stories about being robbed by police officers on the side of the highway – sued the City of Rohnert Park. The city settled the case for roughly $2 million without admitting any wrongdoing.
A city spokesperson said Rohnert Park has hired an independent auditor to review investigations into civilian complaints and that the city "does not tolerate corrupt and unethical practices within the ranks of its employees..."
Flatten was also sharing this information with the FBI. Earlier this year, Huffaker and Tatum were hit with federal charges accusing them of robbing passing motorists of cannabis and cash.
“Between at least August 2016 and December 2017, Tatum and others seized money, marijuana, and property from individuals that they stopped along Highway 101, without arresting these individuals, without providing a citation or asset forfeiture notice to the individuals, without filing any incident/investigation report,” the FBI states in its criminal complaint against the officers.
But Flatten said what happened to him has come at a cost, and says he believes the conspiracy stretches beyond California. After going to authorities, Flatten says someone broke into his Texas home and scrawled a threat on one of his walls, saying “Light is death. Police cockroach.”
And when a service light kept coming on in his car, his mechanic found something strange.
“They found a GPS tracking unit hard wired in my car,” Flatten said.
NBC Bay Area confirmed the discovery with Flatten’s mechanic.
Despite all of that, Flatten says he’s going to keep pushing to weed out possible criminal cops.
“I want to hold all the people responsible,” Flatten said. “The intent is to keep pushing until we get as far as we can get or I run into a brick wall.”