HELENA — The beginning of the end of Montana's once-booming medical marijuana industry came with a phone call from a citizen who was upset that hundreds of pot plants were in plain sight in a greenhouse near a busy roadway outside Helena.
The phone call led to an investigation that culminated with the March 2011 raid of the grow operation in the old State Nursery off U.S. Highway 12, Drug Enforcement Agency special agent Wesley Smith said Tuesday. The raid was the centerpiece a federal crackdown that involved 26 search warrants executed across Montana that day, shocking the medical marijuana industry and causing providers across the state to shutter their businesses.
Smith's testimony at the trial of Chris Williams provided a rare look at the investigation and the raids. Williams co-founded Montana Cannabis and headed the grow operation at the old State Nursery. He is the only raided provider who has elected to stand trial rather than make a plea deal with prosecutors.
Williams pleaded not guilty to drug manufacturing, possession, distribution and firearms charges. He has said he wants to present his case that he was following state medical marijuana laws and that he believes the federal raids were timed to influence state lawmakers who were considering repealing or severely restricting those laws.
However, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen has barred Williams from making that case to jurors, saying state law is irrelevant in Williams' prosecution under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Smith, who headed the investigation into Montana Cannabis, said he received a call in summer 2010 from a person who was upset that rows and rows of marijuana plants could be seen through the windows of the old State Nursery. The expanding operation moved into the greenhouse after starting out on another part of the property with a relatively modest 60 plants in 2009, former employees testified.
Smith, who is based in Billings, said he drove by the Helena operation. What he saw was a marijuana manufacturing facility that far surpassed the 100-plant threshold that warrants a prison sentence of 40 years under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
"I thought, that's pretty obvious there's more than 100 plants growing there. That's closer to 1,000," he said.
Smith opened an investigation after receiving more citizen complaints about what was going on in the greenhouse. The investigation involved confidential informants, undercover agents and monitored buys of Montana Cannabis locations in Helena, Miles City, Missoula and Billings.
Then on March 14, 2011, Smith and other agents raided the greenhouse, sweeping through the complex and cuffing workers and lining them up outside. Officers guarding the rear caught three people trying to escape out of a back door and rousted security guard Dan Nichols from a nearby camper. In all, a dozen workers were there.
Agents seized 950 marijuana plants. Plus, there were pounds of bulk marijuana, brownies, cookies, tinctures and other marijuana products.
"We had a U-Haul truck. It was a 26-foot truck, and it was three-quarters of the way full," Smith said.
Agents took samples and sent them via FedEx to a DEA lab in San Francisco, where it was confirmed to be marijuana.
Williams showed up later that day and agreed to be interviewed by DEA investigator Braden Bindrup before he took a call from a person who advised him not to talk anymore. Before the interview ended, Williams told Bindrup that the greenhouse had operated for 56 cycles and produced between 150 and 200 ounces of marijuana per cycle, Bindrup said.
That is at least 8,400 ounces of marijuana, or 525 pounds, produced between 2009 and 2011.
Jenna Thompson, who used to handle the daily sales and books for Montana Cannabis in Helena, testified that the business was selling marijuana for $190 an ounce. At that price, it would have received at least $1.6 million for 8,400 ounces.
Agents also found guns. One pistol was in a backpack on top of a desk, while another was in a room full of marijuana products along with a 12-gauge shotgun, said John Komora of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Behind the greenhouse, in the camper where Nichols stayed, Komora found another pistol and three more rifles.
Nichols is better known as the "mountain man" who was convicted in the 1980s with his father for the kidnapping of biathlete Kari Swenson in southwestern Montana.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Thaggard argued the weapons found at the greenhouse and in the camper were used to protect the drug operation.
Williams' attorney, Michael Donahoe, said the firearms belonged to individual employees.
The trial is expected to last until at least Thursday, and Donahoe said Williams may take the stand. Donahoe so far has tried to make the case through cross-examination of witnesses that Montana Cannabis was a legitimate business with employee schedules, payrolls and bookkeeping.
But he is limited by Christensen's order from saying his client's business followed state laws or that it was accepted by state and local authorities.
Donahoe also is attempting to separate the grow operation from the backyard operation run by Montana Cannabis partner Richard Flor from 2006 until the partnership began in 2009.
Flor and former partners Tom Daubert and Chris Lindsey made plea deals for a lesser charge of conspiracy to maintain a drug premises. Flor died in prison in August, while Daubert and Lindsey testified against Williams on Monday as part of their plea deals.