One of the risks of operating a medical marijuana dispensary is the possibility of attracting unwanted attention from violent, dishonest people willing to defraud and even kill others in order to indulge their addiction.
When a man calling himself “Dustin Hankins” showed up at the 45th Parallel, a medical marijuana co-op in Ontario, Oregon, the staff received him in good faith. “Hankins,” who had made a 70-mile trip across the state line from Boise, presented an Idaho driver’s license and paperwork from his doctor claiming that he suffered from severe pain as a result of a work-related shoulder separation. He had previously contacted the clinic by telephone to find out how he could obtain medicinal marijuana.
Once “Hankins” had arrived at the clinic the staff inspected his documents and filled out the necessary paperwork for him to receive an Oregon Medical Marijuana Program card. A staffer named John Turner explained the importance of complying with Oregon regulations before “Hankins” could obtain medicinal marijuana. Once all of the legal details were in order, “Hankins” paid $165 to purchase a small amount of a cannabis strain called “Super Lemon Haze.”
Nothing about this August 14, 2012 transaction seemed out of the ordinary to the people running the 45th Parallel. The clinic staff believed that they had provided a service to a man suffering from persistent pain and muscle spasms. Liberty in Eclipse Best Price: $5.16 Buy New $58.85 (as of 11:05 EST - Details)
The letter “Hankins” provided from Dr. Clinton Mallari, a Boise pain specialist, emphasized that the patient was not “a surgical candidate for his condition” and that he was “reluctant to perform any more injections on him.” “Hankins” presented all of the necessary documentation, and the marijuana was provided in strict compliance with Oregon law.
What the 45th Parallel staff didn’t know was that “Hankins” had committed interstate wire fraud, suborned Dr. Mallari into falsifying medical records, and obtained a counterfeit Idaho driver’s license. Nor did they know that “Hankins” was an alias used by someone who about ten years earlier had shot a man in the head, leaving the victim paralyzed for eight years before he finally died from complications of the shooting. Most importantly, the staff at 45th Parallel had no idea that Hankins and his accomplices had cased out their operation and intended to steal its assets.
“Dustin Hankins” was actually Dustin T. Bloxham, a Boise-based agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The money he paid for the cannabis was provided by the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, which has been rewarded with a huge windfall in fines and other proceeds from the clinic.
Acting beyond his jurisdiction, and without authorization from US Attorney for Idaho Wendy Olson, Bloxham contacted Detective Brad Williams of the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office in Vale, Oregon to organize an undercover operation targeting the 45th Parallel. That operation culminated in a September 11, 2012 raid on the co-op and marijuana growers associated with it.
Sixteen members of the coop were indicted. All but two – co-founders William Esbensen and Raymond Kangas – were eventually given probation; they were also required to pay fines directly to the Malheur County Sheriff’s office. On June 6, Esbensen and Kangas were found guilty on multiple counts of “racketeering.” In essence, they were convicted of a conspiracy to offer a legally recognized medicine to people who needed it. They are presently confined at the Malheur County Jail awaiting sentencing. Kangas, who had no prior criminal record, is on suicide watch, which means that he is in danger of becoming Bloxham’s second victim.
In March 2012, Esbensen, who owned a car dealership and a construction business in addition to the 45thParallel, was the subject of multiple “pretext stops” by officers from multiple agencies associated with the High Desert Narcotics Task Force (HDDTF).
“I decided to sell a camper on Craig’s List,” Esbensen explained in an interview several weeks ago. “After I got an offer, I put a dealer plate on the rear of the camper and drove it from Vale to the clinic in Ontario, where I cleaned it up and got it ready to deliver to the buyer in Boise.”
By that time, the 45th Parallel was under relentless surveillance by the HDDTF, which was constantly intercepting Idaho-bound traffic from the clinic. When Esbensen left the parking lot, the officers put their well-rehearsed plan into action.
“A few blocks away from my clinic, I was stopped by an Oregon State Trooper,” Esbensen continued. “He told me that a taillight wasn’t working, so I fixed it there by the side of the road. While I was working, this guy goes, `It kind of smells like pot.’ I called his bluff, telling him he was lying. He didn’t know what to say, so he let me go.”
Esbensen made it to the I-84 exit, and was just barely across the state line when he was stopped by two Payette County Sheriff’s deputies for a supposed “license plate violation” for displaying a single dealer’s plate, as state law requires.
“Sure enough, as soon as they got near the vehicle, one of them said, `Hey, it kind of smells like pot,’” Esbensen recounted, his voice laden with weary disgust, Esbensen once again told the officers they were lying.
“You must think I’m really stupid,” he told the deputies. “Why would I be bringing pot into Idaho?”
The Payette County deputies let Esbensen go, but trailed him all the way to the county line – where they handed him off to an even larger contingent of costumed pests.
The moment he reached Canyon County “I was pulled over again – and this time there were five state police cars, in addition to the DEA, sheriff’s deputies, and a K9 officer with a police car. The moment they stopped me, one of the officers shouted, `Get out of the car – it smells like pot!’ I told him he was lying, and they sat me down in the back of a cop car while they ran the drug dog all around the camper.”
In his affidavit, ISP Trooper Christopher Cottrell claimed that when Esbensen rolled down his window, “I could immediately smell the strong odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle.” That was a lie, of course: The drug-sniffing dog – which was trained not only to detect marijuana, but to follow prompts – absolutely failed to “alert” to the vehicle, much to the frustration of the road pirates who anticipated a headline-snagging bust and a lucrative forfeiture haul.
“They couldn’t take it,” Esbensen recalled with a chuckle. “They didn’t have any probable cause, and I had explicitly refused to consent to a search, but they went into the trailer anyway and searched it for 35 minutes. They found nothing but the cleanest trailer they had ever seen. And they also went into my personal effects – which they had no legal right to do – and they eventually found a single joint.”
“A search of the vehicle revealed a marijuana joint insider a black knap sack [sic] on the passenger seat,” in addition to “residue” in some baggies found therein, Cottrell later stated in his official report, in which the trooper implicitly claimed to possesses olfactory powers worthy of the Last Son of Krypton: His uniquely acute sense of smell detected a “strong odor” from a single joint that had eluded detection by a trained drug-sniffing dog.
“We got it!” snarled Cottrell to Esbensen, his face contorted in triumph as he held aloft the solitary, forlorn joint. “There you go – it’s pot! Your ass is going to jail!”
“For a single joint?” Esbensen replied, shaking his head in resigned disgust. “That’s a single ounce of marijuana, which is a misdemeanor. Write me a ticket.”
Although this well-coordinated operation failed to find evidence of any criminal offenses by Esbensen, it did yield some valuable intelligence.
“The one thing they found was my briefcase, which they held on to for several weeks,” Esbensen points out. “This case got passed along to three or four prosecutors, who didn’t want to touch it. Eventually a judge ordered them to give me back my briefcase `before [I] sued someone.’”
The briefcase had a security lock to prevent unauthorized access. When Esbensen retrieved it, he discovered that the lock had been forced, and all of the privileged information in the case had been copied.
“They had access to our client list, our tax records, and all of our business information,” he summarizes.
That illegally acquired information was provided to DEA Agent Dustin Bloxham in Boise. Despite the fact that the 45th Parallel was located in another state, the prospect of seizing its assets was irresistible.
“Attached is a copy of some evidence that was seized from [Esbensen’s] vehicle,” Bloxham wrote in a March 29 2012 email to Marc Haws, an assistant US attorney for Idaho. “Thought maybe if you guys had a moment, you might be able to look through it and see if they are doing some pretty good business. I had glanced over it and it appears to me that some decent money is coming out of that business.”
Missing from that missive was any allegation of criminal behavior on the part of Esbensen and his associates – for very good reason: They were doing their considerable best to operate strictly within the law, as it was commonly understood.
“Our books were in order and they proved that we were selling all of our medicine at the legally defined price,” Esbensen told me. “We were one hundred percent transparent. We were part of the local Chamber of Commerce. We held town hall meetings and invited the cops.”
Esbensen’s unabashed promotion of cannabis as a medicine earned the resentment of prohibitionists in Malheur County, and the malevolent attention of Agent Bloxham, who later testified that he first learned of the 45th Parallel’s operations through the media. It also attracted the attention of clients living in Idaho and other nearby states that still treat marijuana consumption as if it were a crime.
“I’ve dealt with people from both Idaho and Oregon who have sought help for cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, epilepsy,” Esbensen attests. “We had at least 100 to 150 patients who came to us trying to get off prescription pain pills – sometimes up to twenty-five pills a day. This included Oxycontin and other dangerous drugs. Many of them were sent over from Idaho – and even up from Utah – by doctors who couldn’t help them, but wanted to see them get better. And if medical marijuana were widely accepted, the government and its allies in the pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t get their pinch.”
Bloxham didn’t just want a “pinch”; he wanted to grab everything he could from the 45th Parallel. He pitched the idea to US Attorney Olson, who – in a display of unwonted restraint – declined to approve the investigation.
Bloxham was asked about jurisdictional issues during his testimony in the bench trial of Esbensen and Kangas. Undaunted by the fact that he had neither authorization from the Justice Department, nor an invitation from the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office (which would have to deputize him to operate in its jurisdiction), Bloxham simply ran the investigation as a freelancer. He later claimed on the witness stand that “My jurisdiction is the entire United States.” To validate that claim he cited his previous work with a specialized DEA task force in California that operated in neighboring states as well.
Rather than demonstrating Bloxham’s professionalism and competence, his record in California suggests that he is an opportunistic killer.
On April 17, 2002, Bloxham took part in a military-style assault on the Santa Paula, California home of 22-year-old Edward Barron, who had allegedly sold meth to an undercover cop.
“The officers used a `Trojan Horse maneuver’ in which an unmarked car cruised by the house to divert [Barron’s] attention,” summarizes a 2007 appellate court ruling.
Fearing that he was being set up for a drive-by shooting, Barron told his girlfriend into his house, grabbed a gun to defend himself and his three young children, and went back outside. The decoy vehicle drove by again. As it did so, an unmarked DEA van pulled up and disgorged four agents, Bloxham among them. The masked agents approached Barron with drawn guns.
Barron tried to retreat into his home – an action dishonestly described by the police as “advance[ing] towards the house – and allegedly reached for his gun. Bloxham fired three shots, two of them hitting the victim in the back. The first severed his spinal cord, leaving him a quadriplegic.
During a March 2004 preliminary hearing, Bloxham – who doubtless describes himself as a trained observer – claimed that Barron, who was right-handed, fired his gun over his left shoulder while retreating into the house. When that account didn’t comport with the physical evidence, Bloxham was allowed to revise his testimony: During Barron’s trial, the DEA agent claimed that the victim had “held the gun pressed to his chest” and pointed it at the officers.
On the basis of this self-contradictory testimony, Barron was found guilty of “assault with a firearm” and given three years’ probation. The prosecutor generously offered a discounted sentence because Barron, who suffered from incurable total paralysis, was entirely dependent on his family. He died in June 2010 at age 30 of pneumonia, which was an outgrowth of his condition.
The Ventura County Medical Examiner ruled Barron’s death a “homicide.” The killer was Dustin Bloxham, who was rewarded with a federal “Medal of Valor” and the DEA’s Badge of Valor. He eventually returned to his native Idaho, where he carries out undercover operations on behalf of the local prohibitionist apparat – which Bill Esbensen characterizes as a “syndicate.”
“I’m convinced that there are drug dealers with badges in the Treasure Valley,” Esbensen told me a few weeks before being sent to jail. “The day we were raided, police on both sides of the Snake River hit a total of 11 grow areas in two states. They claimed to have seized seven hundred mature marijuana plants – each of them the size of a Christmas tree, basically. This was enough to fill a parking lot. Yet we’ve only been able to account for about one-tenth that number. So what happened to all of the rest? Did they end up in the hands of people who are working both sides of the law? Did somebody in law enforcement steal enough confiscated pot to fill a parking lot?”
Esbensen’s suspicions have merit. During his trial, Detective Williams testified that all of the confiscated marijuana plants had been taken to the nearby Lytle Landfill and buried. The manager of the landfill told me that he believes the marijuana plants were dumped into “a really big hole” but had no records confirming that this happened. When I inquired about this at the Solid Waste Disposal department, I was again told that no records of the burial exist and directed to “ask the Sheriff’s Office” – whose uncorroborated story was already a matter of record.
“These guys are racketeers – the state police on both sides of the river, the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, the Payette County Sheriff’s Office, the DEA, they’re all mobbed up and running what amounts to a syndicate,” Esbensen contends. “They get money from the Feds for every seizure, whether or not actual trafficking is taking place. And as I said, nobody can account for all of the marijuana they actually confiscate.”
Some of the seized marijuana may have found its way into the possession of a disaffected former 45th Parallel associate, a woman with a criminal history who is now operating a medical marijuana facility — or as she would describe it, a “wellness center” — in Ontario that is located within 1000 feet of a school.
The owner, Tricia Gardner, was among the chief witnesses against Esbensen. She filed paperwork to open her clinic the day prior to the raid on the 45th Parallel, and her business is a carbon copy of the one that had been operated by Esbensen and Kangas. She was arrested and charged along with fifteen of her associates, and agreed to a deal involving a $6000 fine (which, like the others, was to be paid directly to the sheriff’s office) and probation. A pending forgery charge against her was also quietly dropped.
Gardner’s meth-related criminal record disqualifies her from operating that clinic, which is also illegal under a city medical marijuana moratorium that recently went into effect. Its proximity to a school would normally attract the attention of the DEA. She clearly enjoys the protection of the “syndicate” Esbensen describes – and whose activities we will continue to examine in our next installment.