|Trouble In An Island Paradise|
Posted by FoM on April 26, 2000 at 06:51:22 PT|
By Candy Hatcher Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Source: Seattle P-I
Tourists don't belong here. Occasionally they show up anyway, out of curiosity, but there's no reason to stay. No bicycle rentals, no phones, no ferry service, no electricity. Not even a cold drink. The only store closed in 1942.
That's the way most who live here want to keep it. They came to this remote place in the San Juans to get away from convenience stores and traffic and noise.
They chop their own wood and grow their own food. They entertain themselves with books and music, potluck dinners and critter roasts. There are more pianos on the island than televisions.
Waldron's simple beauty -- 4 1/2 square miles of lush woods, dirt roads and pristine shores -- first attracted these independent people. But it's not necessarily why they stay. They love the quirky community of 80 permanent residents, the emphasis on preservation and privacy.
Nearly three years ago, 35 law enforcement officers invaded the island to arrest a "drug kingpin" and others they'd been told were growing marijuana and selling some of it to children. Sheriff's deputies and federal agents stormed Waldron before sunrise on Aug. 19, 1997, bringing drug-sniffing dogs, a dump truck, two pickup trucks and an all-terrain vehicle. Heavily armed officers handcuffed sleepy citizens and scoured their property.
They seized 886 marijuana plants, most of it belonging to one couple. They arrested seven people. But they found no evidence that the alleged kingpin, Bob Schmoker, was anything but a community activist who occasionally smoked pot.
The raid ultimately netted six convictions, but it has also spawned conspiracy theories and challenged the islanders' right to privacy. One man's case has been overturned on constitutional grounds. The chief prosecutor has reopened his investigation after a key witness recanted. And the privacy issue is headed to the Washington State Supreme Court for review.
The backdrop to all this is a decadeslong battle over development.
Bill Carlson, a commercial logger and Waldron's second-largest landowner, has been thwarted repeatedly in his efforts to clear hundreds of acres of Douglas fir, transport the timber off the island and sell it.
Carlson said that's nonsense; he was as surprised as anyone when officers showed up on Waldron.
The raid still rankles residents, who say they feel violated.
"It's a loss of innocence," said Sam Green, chairman of the Waldron Community Meeting, a monthly gathering to discuss island issues. "It's not that different from a neighborhood where an act of violence has occurred."
The community doesn't understand why the invasion was necessary, or why anybody thought Schmoker was a dealer or why, after the main witness changed her story, no apology has been forthcoming.
"We have to speculate why, but you can never really know, so you're stuck with conspiracy theories," Green said. "What I'd like is for people to take responsibility and say they're sorry."
A Quilt for Every Newborn:
Everybody on this 2,900-acre island knows everybody else's business -- their talents, their troubles, what makes them angry.
If somebody needs money, the community quietly takes up a collection.
"When you die," Green said, "neighbors dig the hole, make the coffin and put you in it, and then stand there and grieve for you."
Said Betsy Sharp, who has lived here 10 years: "We don't build locks on the doors. Anyone who wants to can go in and borrow what they need."
This is, in some respects, Walton's Mountain or Lake Wobegon, with eccentric neighbors, above-average children and surrogate grandparents. There's a quilt for every baby born here, a party for every eighth-grader graduating from the lone Waldron school and a community baseball game each Easter for everyone old enough to swing a bat.
The community is a flavorful mix of Ph.D.s and dropouts, Quakers and agnostics, poets and mechanics who co-exist, sometimes contentiously, but most of the time with respect for one another's differences.
John Stoops, residents say, can fix anything mechanical. Schmoker "showed up with all the plumbing tools" when he moved here a dozen years ago, so he became the plumber. Sam and Sally Green publish books.
It doesn't take much money to live well on the island, because there is no place to spend it. People just make do with what they have.
Their rules for harmonious living are simple: Tell the truth. Keep your word. Do the least possible harm to the land and those who live on it.
It's when folks haven't lived by these rules, they say, that trouble has come to paradise.
Logging Plan Riles Islanders:
Waldron has been a "limited development district" since 1976. The island, isolated from others in the San Juan archipelago by wide, deep channels, doesn't just discourage tourism, it forbids it.
No large-scale mining of natural resources is allowed. No marinas or breakwaters can be built. No mansions or paved roads or public utilities, residents declared in the early 1990s with a lopsided vote (82 percent).
In 1995, San Juan County commissioners adopted Waldron's restrictive development plan, which made Bill Carlson's logging, log storage and bulldozing activities illegal. Carlson sued.
He said he was told he had been "grandfathered in," and thus was not required to obtain permits. Waldron residents appealed. In March 1997, five months before the pot raid, a hearing officer agreed that Carlson was subject to the land-use restrictions.
Schmoker, a special-education teacher from Seattle who moved to Waldron because of his interest in preservation, was active in that appeal. He testified and presented a videotape of Carlson's logging business. Again that July, Schmoker appealed a permit that allowed Carlson to divide his land.
Carlson, a 63-year-old logger and road builder, has owned property on Waldron since 1962, when he bought 550 acres -- nearly one-fifth of the island. He planned to hold it until he was ready to retire, then sell it off, a piece or two a year, to bankroll his golden years.
Thirty years ago, he said he built an airstrip -- "a gift to the island" for any property owner who needed to fly in or out. He pays insurance, taxes and maintains the strip.
What does Carlson get in return? Garbage dumped on his property. Vandalized equipment. Gravel taken from his rock pit. "I've had it," he said last week.
Waldron resident Ivan Moorhouse said Carlson told him in spring 1997 that he was "going to turn in all the marijuana growers on Waldron if they didn't stop giving him such a hard time."
On Aug. 19, 1997, the same day as the raid, a hearing officer ruled that Carlson's logging operations, including his fuel storage, must conform to the island's land-use plan.
Schmoker didn't get word of that victory until later. He was in handcuffs.
Officers Ready for War:
About 5 a.m., four officers carrying rifles banged on John Remington's cabin door. "Open up. This is the police. We have a search warrant."
They had the wrong place. They were looking for Kim Gordon, who lived up the hill and was growing commercial amounts of marijuana.
Eight months earlier, "citizen informants" had begun tipping sheriff's officials that Waldron residents were growing marijuana and selling to children.
Officers secretly visited some of the properties, then obtained warrants to search the homes and gardens of Gordon, Schmoker and three others. Schmoker was the alleged ringleader.
The morning of the raid, officers from the San Juan County Sheriff's Office, Skagit County Drug Task Force, Drug Enforcement Administration and Customs Service fanned out across the island.
They found more than 500 plants on Gordon's 10 acres. They seized 139 plants from Dennis Holmgren, who acknowledged he had been growing marijuana for personal use for 30 years. Agents took 118 plants from property jointly owned by Timothy Quigley and Ivan Moorhouse. They confiscated 100 plants from Betty Ledbetter.
When they arrived at Schmoker's house about 6:30 a.m., they were ready for war. They were prepared to find the sophisticated equipment associated with professional growers: elaborate security systems, trip wires tied to explosives, multifrequency scanners to monitor police, firearms to discourage intruders.
They crouched behind Schmoker's pickup truck and, using bullhorns, ordered him outside.
Schmoker, then 51, came out in his underwear with his hands up. Officers handcuffed him and read him his rights. He remained in handcuffs for six hours. They searched his property and went through his financial records. They found a pipe and a baggie containing marijuana, but no plants or security systems or weapons. They didn't arrest him.
Rolf Thorson, then 50, a horticulturist who has lived on Waldron since 1948, was working in his raspberry patch when a deputy, three federal agents and a drug-sniffing dog approached at midday. Although they had no warrant, they said they'd seen marijuana from the adjoining land and had cause to search his property.
They confiscated nine plants and arrested Thorson. But they didn't find the plant they said they'd seen earlier from the edge of his property, 200 feet away.
Thorson had fed that one to his goats.
In the months after the bust, Waldron residents rallied around those who had been arrested. They had been angry that the marijuana growers had jeopardized the island's privacy. But the bigger sin was the county's, they said.
"The sheriff could've come out, put his business card on each one of those marijuana patches, and they would've been gone the next day," Schmoker said.
Instead, residents said, officers retaliated against the island because they viewed most people there as troublemakers. Islanders saw evidence of a conspiracy. They said they knew the identities of most, if not all, the confidential informants, and each had reason to disrupt Waldron's status quo.
Jemine Kile, a new resident who'd had a tough time adjusting to life on Waldron, eventually acknowledged she was Informant No. 5. Sheriff's officials asked her to help with their investigation, she said. Under oath, she identified Schmoker as a major marijuana dealer.
'Encouraged To Exaggerate'
Waldron residents shunned her for several months, her attorney, Frank Lasalata, said. They denied her use of the private boat that takes residents to the mainland. Someone, Lasalata said, put sugar in Kile's gas tank and reverse-wired her generator.
Eighteen months after the bust, Kile recanted, signing two affidavits that said "the statements made about Bob Schmoker . . . were not true."
"At the time I believed they were," she wrote, "due to information I received from others."
At a community meeting designed to heal the island's rifts, Kile apologized, saying she had been "swept up in the emotion of it" and had been "encouraged to exaggerate" when she talked to sheriff's officials.
Residents questioned Kile, taking turns by passing a rock around the room. Whoever held the rock had the floor. They asked her about politics. They asked her if she was afraid. They asked if she'd been promised anything for cooperating with law enforcement.
The drug bust, she told them, "was motivated politically." San Juan County officials were "pretty fed up with the Waldron people and . . . were feeling a lot of pressure" to end the constant appeals of the code enforcement decisions.
According to minutes of two community meetings in January 1999, Kile told residents she felt "manipulated and used" as an informant. She said she did not remember calling Schmoker a "kingpin" or "main dealer."
She told the Waldron community she was afraid: "I feel very threatened, not by anything anybody said, but probably mostly by my own fantasies, of fear. . . . I am even afraid of the county. I don't know where I have any safety."
Kile has put her property up for sale and isn't discussing the case. Her attorney says she felt forced to recant. "Sign this and everybody will be happy," he said she was told.
San Juan County Prosecutor Randy Gaylord, who had closed the Waldron case after obtaining convictions against all those charged, has reopened his investigation after interviewing Kile.
He won't say what he's investigating, and a judge has ruled in response to a public records request from a local newspaper that Gaylord's files -- including transcripts of the conversation with Kile last year -- are confidential.
"The perception of what the crime is may not be the correct perception," Superior Court Judge Vickie Churchill said at a court hearing in March after reviewing Gaylord's records. "In the public's eye, something else is going on. There's all this speculation."
Churchill asked for another hearing in June to see whether prosecutors planned to file charges or close the investigation. "There's a lot of tempest in the teapot over what may be in this file."
Gaylord agreed. "No one wants to live with these things forever," he said. "It's not in the public's interest."
Islander's Privacy Violated:
Gaylord says the justice system worked in this case.
The only information from confidential informants not borne out by an arrest was the tip involving Schmoker, he said. Regardless of whether informants hold a grudge, accurate information is what counts.
"An informant's motivation may or may not be lily-white. It's not the driving factor in determining whether what they say is truthful."
Neither Gaylord nor Cumming makes apologies for the 1997 raid.
"It was a well-thought-out and executed investigation in a very remote area," Cumming said. "Nobody was hurt, and people by and large were treated with a lot of respect."
And contrary to what many believe, Cumming added, Bill Carlson was not involved.
Sheriff's officials compiled the evidence, "dealing with the best information they (had) at that moment," Gaylord said. Tips led them from Friday Harbor through Orcas Island to Waldron.
A judge heard testimony from an informant and approved the search warrants. Cumming and his deputies made the arrests. Prosecutors looked at the evidence and decided the appropriate charges. A judge presided over trials and approved the pleas.
"We had lots of checks and balances that worked," Gaylord said. "The community is well served by what happened on Waldron Island."
Kim Gordon, who moved to Waldron with his wife, Katrina de Rafael, 18 months before the raid, spent months in federal prison. Five others were sentenced to house arrest, community service or jail time.
One, however, appealed his conviction and won. Rolf Thorson said police had no business searching his property without a warrant. Police violated his privacy, he said, by walking through private fields and paths to find one plant in a 55-gallon drum.
The state Court of Appeals agreed.
"A dweller in a rural area whose property is surrounded by extremely dense growth need not anticipate that government agents will be crawling through the underbrush by putting up signs warning the government to keep away," the judges ruled in December.
"Only where there is some implied public access to private property does a police officer without a warrant have the right to intrude," the court held, ruling the search invalid and overturning Thorson's conviction.
Gaylord is appealing the ruling to the state Supreme Court, saying the high court should decide whether people on Waldron Island have a greater expectation of privacy than those in Seattle, Spokane or on farmland in Eastern Washington.
The Nightmare Continues:
The bust continues to haunt the island.
Thorson, no longer a felon, has spent all the proceeds from his flower sales to pay his legal bills. Gordon and de Rafael moved to California after their property was seized and sold at auction as drug-related assets. Ledbetter also moved off Waldron.
The ripples have even spread to family court in Seattle, where a San Juan deputy involved in the raid has injected himself into Schmoker's child-custody dispute.
Carlson is fed up with the islanders and wants out. All the rumors that he was responsible for the drug bust? They're bunk, he said. "I had nothing to do with it. I wouldn't know a plant today if I saw one."
The residents are undaunted in their efforts to preserve Waldron for future generations. They're keeping track of Carlson's permit applications and making sure all property owners adhere to land-use regulations.
But they wonder: At what cost?
"One of the best things about Waldron was being able to go out and walk," said Sally Green, who moved to the island 18 years ago.
"Now I wonder: Is there somebody lurking? There's a presence that wasn't here before -- camouflage clothes wandering around the woods with a rifle.
"It's in the back of your mind. Bob was wrongly accused. Could someone do that to us?"
On Aug. 19, 1997, 35 officers from San Juan and Skagit counties, the Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration conducted a marijuana raid on Waldron Island. They uprooted 886 marijuana plants from six properties. Seven people were arrested, and one more questioned:
Katrina de Rafael, 47, owned 10.6 acres with Gordon.
Dennis R. Holmgren, 52, owns 4.8 acres.
Betty Ledbetter, 45, owned 20.7 acres.
Timothy R. Quigley, 34, and Ivan S. Moorhouse, 29, own 20.8 acres.
Rolf Thorson, 52, owns 20 acres.
Robert Schmoker, 54, owns 4.8 acres.
P-I reporter Candy Hatcher can be reached at 206-448-8320