Former marshal recalls the hunt, legend of ‘Johnny Boone’

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‘Godfather of Grass’ awaiting extradition from Canada, could face life imprisonment

By Forrest Berkshire, Editor

The Central Kentucky region’s most infamous contemporary outlaw sits in a Canadian jail awaiting extradition to the United States, and it’s a day that the man originally charged with finding the fugitive thought would never happen.

“I was extremely surprised when I got that message,” Rick McCubbin said last week. “I always said until Johnny Boone wants to get caught, he’s not going to be caught. That’s the legend of Johnny Boone.”

McCubbin was the U.S. marshal for the Western District of Kentucky in 2008 when his office was tasked with locating Johnny Boone, the former ringleader of the Cornbread Mafia.

Boone went on the run in 2008, after he was indicted in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky that year on charges of manufacturing and possession with the intent to distribute marijuana. Those charges came after the Kentucky State Police and the Drug Enforcement Administration found 2,000 pot plants on Boone’s farm in Springfield.

Facing a third federal conviction that could mean life behind bars, Boone went on the lam after a warrant was issued for his arrest.

For the next eight years, federal officials scoured the local area as well as internationally for a man whose exploits grew into legend and transformed him into a folk hero, not only in Marion and surrounding counties, but nationwide and beyond.

The key to Boone’s elusiveness, McCubbin said, was the affection his hometown felt for the man.

“We burned up Springfield,” McCubbin recalled of the initial search. McCubbin was the federal marshal for this district until 2010 and oversaw the early search attempts.

“I never met a criminal that was so loved by his community,” McCubbin said. “You just don’t see that.”

He said when his marshals would try to find information or a lead on Boone’s whereabouts, they found nothing but dead ends in the Washington and Marion county areas.

“People were very nice,” when they were questioned as to whether they knew where Boone might have fled. “They said ‘Nope, but if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.’ ”

McCubbin said the U.S. Marshal Service received tips from all over the country, and even some that claimed Boone had fled the country. But given his notoriety and the protectiveness of his local community, agents could never be sure how solid a lead might be.

“We had some deputies that said “He’s probably right around here. Why would he leave?’ ” McCubbin said.

Boone has been dubbed “The Godfather of Grass” and was the reported ringleader of a homegrown pot growing syndicate that became known as the Cornbread Mafia. The syndicate comprised at least 29 farms in 10 states and federal officials at the time called it “the largest domestic marijuana producing organization in the nation.”

Much of what is known about the organization is detailed in Lebanon native James Higdon’s 2012 book, “The Cornbread Mafia, A Homegrown Syndicate’s Code of Silence and the Biggest Marijuana Bust in American History.”

The syndicate grew out of Central Kentucky, mostly Marion County with affiliates in Washington and Nelson counties. Boone was credited for his role in developing a high quality strain of pot that made the Bluegrass state famous for a different type of grass in the 1970s and ’80s.

Boone was arrested in 1987 for his role in a marijuana operation in Minnesota and pleaded guilty to federal charges. He spent 15 years in prison for those charges. By the end of 1991, more than 100 members of the organization had been arrested, many from Lebanon.

The members were noted for their refusal to talk to prosecutors or law enforcement.

Higdon, in an interview with WHAS, commented on that code of silence the Kentucky conspirators held to.

“Of the 70, nobody talked,” Higdon said in a televised interview Friday. “It’s remarkable when you tell anyone in the law enforcement field or in the law-breaking field that 70 guys stuck together, people get impressed. Even the Sicilians can’t speak of a track record like that. It was very difficult for me to get these guys to open up to me even though I was from there, and it was 20 years in the past because that commitment to remain silent to protect other people besides themselves was very strong. The price they paid for that silence was significant and real, and that sacrifice that people like Johnny have made by keeping silent has really kept a lot of families and communities together.  Individual men had to bear that responsibility by the federal time that came with that silence.”

The 73-year-old Boone remained uncooperative after his Thursday arrest near Montreal, according to the Montreal Gazette.

Boone had a hearing Friday before a Canadian immigration board, and the newspaper reported that he refused to answer any questions after Montreal Police turned him over to the Canada Border Services Agency. Canadian officials said they are certain Boone entered the country illegally and had lived underground ever since.

“(He) was very calm but refused to answer any questions related to his file,” the newspaper quoted a Canadian official saying.

Boone is awaiting extradition to the United States on his charges from 2008. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

An online petition was started on change.org to free and pardon Johnny Boone by a Bloomfield man. As of Tuesday morning it had 1,271 supporters. It needs 1,500 supporters to be sent to the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney.