Archive for Monday, May 27, 2013

Day 2: From the Emerald Triangle to the Sunflower State

The California Connection

The drug conspiracy stretched across the country, as Kansas drug dealers obtained drugs from Northern California and brought them back to Lawrence, court documents allege.

The drug conspiracy stretched across the country, as Kansas drug dealers obtained drugs from Northern California and brought them back to Lawrence, court documents allege.

May 27, 2013


Several of the defendants in the case lived and worked in portions of Northern California known for marijuana production.

Several of the defendants in the case lived and worked in portions of Northern California known for marijuana production.

Mike Soderling in 2004 overseeing an early morning practice by the
Aquahawks. Through the years, many of Soderling's swimmers went on to swim at major universities around the country.

Mike Soderling in 2004 overseeing an early morning practice by the Aquahawks. Through the years, many of Soderling's swimmers went on to swim at major universities around the country.

1988 KU Swimming and Diving photo of James "Mike" Soderling.

1988 KU Swimming and Diving photo of James "Mike" Soderling.


• 2006: Several major players in the local drug trade start buying high-grade marijuana in California to sell in Lawrence, finding the prices in the west lower than in Mexico or Canada.

• 2009-2011: Wayne Swift, a Kansas City-area drug trafficker, moves to Hayward, Calif., and opens the business California Connections as a front for drug smuggling. Former KU swimmer and Lawrence man James “Mike” Soderling moves out to Fort Bragg, Calif., and begins supplying drugs to people with Kansas links.

• November 2011: Soderling tries to ship marijuana and methamphetamine to a home he rents in Lawrence. However, that shipment is intercepted by federal authorities.

• February 2012: Several people connected to the alleged Dahda brothers drug ring in Lawrence travel to Hayward, Calif., to pick up drugs from Swift at California Connections. Police observe several shipments of drugs from California Connections being delivered to the Kansas City area via Estes Shipping.

• June 2012: More than two dozen people, including the Soderlings, are arrested in Lawrence and the Kansas City area as part of a larger drug conspiracy case.

• November 2012: A handful of Mendocino, Calif., residents, such as Keller and McMillan, are arrested by U.S. Marshals and indicted in the larger drug case.

Click here for an in-depth timeline of the case.

People involved

• James Michael Soderling, 43, Fort Bragg, Calif., and Lawrence: Former head of the Lawrence Aquahawks and the Topeka Swim Association, as well as a former KU swimmer, Soderling is identified in court documents as a “high-grade marijuana broker.” Soderling allegedly helped secure drugs for Park and others in Kansas, and also planned to distribute drugs in Kansas. Pleaded guilty to several charges in the case in February, and is currently free on house arrest in Kansas. Sentencing has not yet been scheduled.

• Sarah Soderling, 35, Fort Bragg: James Soderling’s wife who helped in the drug conspiracy. Pleaded guilty in February to drug conspiracy and is currently free on a $25,000 bond. Sentencing has not yet been scheduled.

• Erin Keller, 47, and John Paul McMillan, 48, both of Mendocino: Couple is accused of supplying large quantities of marijuana to Bauman, as well as transporting drugs to Kansas on several occasions. Both are long-time EMT’s in the Mendocino area, as well as members of the Mendocino volunteer fire department. Both were arrested in November, but neither has pleaded or been convicted in the case.

• Richard W. Smith, Mendicino: Was allegedly a major supplier of marijuana to Bauman, including a 2012 shipment of more than 200 pounds. Arrested in November, Smith has not pleaded or been convicted in the case.

• Henry “Hank” McCusker, Mendicino, 48: An amateur golfer and owner of the Sweetwater Inn, a bed and breakfast in Mendocino, McCusker is accused of supplying Lawrence drug distributor Chad Bauman with drugs on various occasions. In May, he pleaded guilty to a drug conspiracy charge.

• Jeff Wall, Mendocino: Mendocino-area contractor who allegedly supplied marijuana to Bauman. Has not pleaded guilty or been convicted in the case.

• Wayne Swift, 40, Hayward, Calif.: Operated the business California Connections in Hayward, Calif., as a front for the drug operations. Originally from the Kansas City area, Swift moved to California with the intent to set up suppliers for alleged Lawrence and Johnson County drug distributors Bauman, Park, and the Dahda brothers. Pleaded guilty in January to drug conspiracy, but sentencing has not yet been set. Is in federal custody, being held without bond.

(Editor's note: This is the second part of a four-part series on the case. Click here to read Day One. Click here to read Day Three.)

The thousands of pounds of high-grade marijuana that fueled a local drug-selling network arrived via a fertile pipeline from the “Emerald Triangle,” a tri-county portion of Northern California known for prolific pot production.

Through a sophisticated web of drug distribution involving fictitious businesses and a steady stream of Lawrence-area drug couriers, marijuana barrelled east to the Lawrence area, while millions in cash headed west to California, according to court documents.

A former Kansas University swimmer and Lawrence swim coach, an emergency medical technician and volunteer firefighting couple, and an amateur golfer/bed-and-breakfast hotelier were among those wrapped up in the multistate federal prosecution, which has come to include more than 40 defendants.

The swim coach

James “Mike” Soderling was well-known in Lawrence as a hard-driving, successful swimming coach who won numerous honors in the late ’80s and early ’90s swimming for the KU swimming and diving team.

“I always thought the world of him,” said Gary Kempf, former KU swimming and diving head coach, who coached Soderling — a team captain — between 1988 and 1992. Kempf described the former high school All-American who specialized in the 500- and 1650-yard freestyle as a hard worker. After his swimming career at KU, Kempf hired Soderling as an assistant and expected the young man to become a successful coach.

And he did.

After a few years of coaching at KU, Soderling was hired to head the Lawrence Aquahawks, a local swimming training program for youth. Year after year, he pumped out a steady stream of state champions and Division I college swimmers, scattered among prominent college swimming teams across the country.

“I see what the best people in the world are doing and try to bring that here,” Soderling said in a 2004 Journal-World feature on him and the Aquahawks. “We expect a lot. We train like elite swimmers.”

It’s unclear how Soderling went from a successful swimming coach to a “high-grade marijuana broker,” as court documents described him, in just a few years. Soderling resigned from the Aquahawks in 2009, and took a position with the Topeka Swim Association. He worked there until August 2010.

At some point, Soderling, originally from southern California, moved to Fort Bragg, Calif., with his wife, Sarah Soderling, and court documents allege that the two began supplying marijuana to others involved in the larger drug case. Soderling was one of several suppliers from the Northern California region, but he also handled some of the drug transporting himself. In 2011, authorities intercepted a mail shipment of marijuana and methamphetamine Soderling sent from California to a home he rented in Lawrence.

Kempf said he lost track of Soderling several years after he left KU, but had heard about the drug case and his former swimmer’s alleged involvement.

“Surprised and disappointed,” he said.

Soderling has pleaded guilty to several charges in the case. His attorney declined to comment.

California pipeline

While the Soderlings were arrested in June 2012 with the first batch of defendants in the larger drug case spearheaded by the Drug Enforcement Administration and local police, several other defendants — all California residents — were arrested a few months later, this past November.

Some of the defendants, in what is typical in large drug cases, talked to investigators about others involved in the case as part of plea agreements. Some of those agreements in the case have been sealed, while others outline promises of defendants providing “substantial assistance.”

But who said what, and who rolled on whom, isn’t clear.

From various interviews, authorities received enough information to arrest a handful of residents of Mendocino, a Northern California town of fewer than 900 residents. The surrounding area is known for high-grade marijuana growing.

Among those implicated and later arrested were Henry “Hank” McCusker, an amateur golfer and owner of the Sweetwater Spa and Inn bed and breakfast, as well two EMTs and members of the Mendocino volunteer fire department: couple Erin Keller and John Paul McMillan. The couple, which operated their own growing operation and knew the Soderlings, are accused of supplying drugs that would eventually wind up in the hands of Kansas City and Johnson County-area businessman Peter Park, an alleged drug supplier also indicted in the case.

“They are both caring people,” said Ed O’Brien, chief of the fire department and owner of the Compass Rose, a leather goods store in Mendocino, of McMillan and Keller. O’Brien said the couple, who allegedly began transporting marijuana to Kansas in late 2010, remain on the fire department, and he’s known both for about a decade.

News of the arrests brought “a lot of sadness” to the community, O’Brien said.

McMillan’s lawyer could not be reached for comment. Zenia Gilg, a San Francisco attorney representing Keller, said her legal team still is assessing the case and collecting information about her client’s alleged involvement. But, on the surface, Gilg took issue with the overarching indictment, which alleges her client, and the others from the Mendocino area, were involved in a much larger conspiracy thousands of miles away from their hometown.

“The way this was charged with so many defendants and so many charges seems unwieldy,” she said.

Keller and McMillan are well-known figures in the Mendocino area, O’Brien said. Keller operates Erin Keller Home, an arts and crafts store near Mendocino, and McMillan is certified in water rescue as part of his role with the fire department. Unlike several of the local defendants in the case, neither Keller nor McMillan had a criminal record prior to their 2012 arrests.

Just regular, normal folks?

“Well, they’re from California,” O’Brien said. “It is different.” By different, O’Brien cited the marijuana culture and relaxed laws in his state that allow for the use of medicinal marijuana. Just down the street from his shop are two medical marijuana stores, O’Brien said.

Trafficking from California

According to court documents, the man in charge of organizing and shipping the larger quantities of marijuana from California to alleged conspirators here, such as Chad Bauman, a Lawrence businessman convicted of drug trafficking, and local twins Los and Roosevelt Dahda, also indicted in the case, was Wayne S. Swift, formerly of the Kansas City area.

At some point, Swift moved to Hayward, Calif., about three hours south of Mendocino, connected with people such as the Soderlings, Keller and McMillan, and turned an auto parts business into a hub for drug trafficking back to Kansas.

Swift’s business, the aptly named California Connections, had a Kansas City-area branch. According to court records, he was already shipping large crates of wheels and other parts between Hayward and the Kansas City area, and that provided a convenient cover for storing and smuggling drugs. Sometimes, the drugs would be mailed, but other times teams of couriers would mule the drugs and money cross country, with contraband hidden in secret compartments in the vehicles.

In April 2012, investigators, aided by intelligence from the wiretap, were able to watch an alleged shipment of drugs from start to finish. Agents watching the California Connections headquarters in Hayward saw Swift loading a crate into a truck. A few days later, agents in Kansas City watched his business partner at the Kansas City branch unload it.

The alleged transaction included many of the major players in the larger conspiracy, and recordings of their phone chatter throughout the deal would play a prominent role in the government’s case.

High profit margin

The idyllic Mendocino area, situated on cliffs overseeing the Pacific Ocean and home to the Mendocino Headlands State Park, is home to an unusual number of out-of-state license plates and rental cars, according to Mike Sena, director of the Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

“They’re not there to go hiking,” said Sena, who coordinates efforts to combat drug trafficking in the region.

The area is a hot spot for growing large amounts of high-grade marijuana. The local and state laws are different, with medical marijuana laws on the books, and there is minimal legal risk associated with growing the drugs, he said.

In the past, drugs were smuggled up from Mexico. But with the ease and abundance of marijuana grown and supplied in Northern California, it’s a natural pick-up point for out-of-state smugglers, who buy up large quantities and haul it back to their respective areas, Sena said.

Court records allege that Keller and McMillan operated a small growing operation in the Mendocino area, but at some point upped the ante on their operation, acquiring larger amounts of drugs from various area sources to supply to Bauman's drug-dealing operation in Lawrence.

For local growers who supply medical marijuana shops, the allure of big money is sometimes just too much to resist. “There’s a huge profit margin,” Sena said.

At times, court records allege that Bauman was facilitating the smuggling of hundreds of pounds of drugs via the California pipeline, which isn’t unusual, Sena said.

“A few hundred pounds is no problem,” he said.

Some pleaded, some not, so far

The Soderlings have both pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges, and await sentencing. But several others from the Mendocino area, such as Keller and McMillan, have not pleaded or been convicted in the case.

Many have been released on bond, pending additional court hearings. Trial dates have not been set.

Tomorrow: Two local business owners, and lovers, funneled thousands in drug proceeds through a tanning salon and carpet cleaning business.


The California Connection

Here's a look at how the major players in the case were allegedly connected.

Google Map

Cross country drug case

View Drug case locations in a larger map

The case against Los and Roosevelt Dahda stretched across the country.


leftylucky 4 years, 7 months ago

Is today's article a reprint from a mendocino paper. Information seems awful familiar to article written in California. Do reporters take articles and put their own names on reprints?

Shaun Hittle 4 years, 7 months ago

The Mendocino stories, some of which are linked in this story, used the court documents in their stories. We also used court documents in our story. So, many of the facts in both stories would be similar if they're based on the court documents.

But do we steal articles from other papers, add our names, and present them as our own work? No.

Shaun Hittle Reporter LJW

Chelsea Kapfer 4 years, 7 months ago

Agreed, Leftylucky. This is basically a reprint with absolutely nothing new reported since the last article. How many times is Ljworld going to print the same story?

Maddy Griffin 4 years, 7 months ago

Imagine how much money has been spent on this case and will be spent going forward. That's how much Colorado and Washington are saving.For something as harmless as marijuana.

Liberty275 4 years, 7 months ago

Prohibition breeds nothing but violence. It is time for America to have a sane drug policy.

odaraia 4 years, 7 months ago

I'm sorry Mendocino is depicted so sinisterly. It's beautiful, has a film festival, intellectuals, and thirty years ago Jim and I honeymooned there. Thirty years and cannabis is finally legal where I live in Seattle. What a waste of resources, not to mention people's lives ruined by an absurd policy, itself sinister.

Crazy_Larry 4 years, 7 months ago

Prohibition is the breeding ground for corruption.

Thumbs up to you!

Lucky375 4 years, 7 months ago

So much more to this story. Why the copy and paste?

Shall 4 years, 7 months ago

I agree all the marijuana stuff is not all that interesting since it is bound to be legalized, eventually. I'm more curious about the mentions of meth & cocain. Plus, surely some investigating and interviewing could be done to find out how a swim coach got into drug dealing. I think a lot of people would be interested in that, being that this is someone who had regular close contact with children.

Kyle Chandler 4 years, 7 months ago

Id prefer that someone strung out on prescription medications be around my kids

Catalano 4 years, 7 months ago

Maybe if the legislature got high on Tuesday, they would see the light and legalize pot and our tax problems would be resolved. Okay, everyone, start baking brownies today and we'll do a road trip to Topeka tomorrow and share with the legislators!

irvan moore 4 years, 7 months ago

i'm ok with people smoking pot but think the real story here is the somewhat well organized criminal organization these guys set up and ran

Crazy_Larry 4 years, 7 months ago

If pot were legal, these people would be considered as entrepreneurs and they'd have paid a lot of taxes...we get to waste tax dollars prosecuting and housing them instead!

Hudson Luce 4 years, 7 months ago

If it were legal for people to grow their own for personal use, the big money operations like this would be out of business overnight. The same goes for all other drugs. Make it legal for people to do it on their own, and the drug business would disappear. As for people's lives being ruined by drugs, it's happening now, and jail does not offer drug treatment. Add to that the fact that it's often the case that people can continue to get drugs in jail from corrupt guards. As a result, people are still addicted when they get out, only they've got no chance at getting gainful employment and are forced into crime to support their addictions.

The best way to deal with this problem isn't by jailing addicts, it's by treating the addiction and getting them on the road to recovery. Perhaps involuntary commitments to psychiatric hospitals might do some good as well, but these would have to be fairly long term instead of the short commitments presently seen, in which patients are "stabilized" on other drugs and then kicked out into the community without any real support. Paying $30,000 per year per inmate incarcerated on drugs charges is a very bad deal; it's possible that significant savings could be realized by putting addicts in halfway houses and the like instead.

Kyle Chandler 4 years, 7 months ago

There seems to be more to this story than meets the eye (or is being told) In Day 1's article, it is mentioned/implied that Det. McAtee knew the Dahdas? personally? Were they friends in school? It seems a little fishy, and leaves quite a big hole in the story there. Not to get all conspiracy theoried out here, but this bust pretty much made his career and he knew these guys BEFORE he was even a police officer ?( i believe they are around the same age if anyone can verify) Not that it matters, but id like to know more details as to how and what/if McAtee knew the Dahdas and how well he did know them. If they were 'buddies' at some point, or maybe 'bullies' to him that would make an even better story. I know that not all LEOs are as straight and narrow as they seem, could this have been a vendetta? Deals gone sour? Something about all that seems a bit weird........

great story/series though!

Ian_Cummings 4 years, 7 months ago

No. As the story says, he knew of them from cases he worked between '97 and 2004. Ian Cummings, LJW.

colicole81 4 years, 7 months ago

Not the same age, not even close. McAtee was a detective before these boys even hit high school.

Deb Engstrom 4 years, 7 months ago

Det. McAtee was very involved in the gang task force in the 1990's and the Dahda's (then Wallaces) were very involved in the gang culture in Lawrence since middle school. They are not the same age.

Left_of_Lawrence 4 years, 7 months ago

Did we learn nothing from Prohibition? A waste of money to prosecute, a waste of potential sales tax revenue.

Crazy_Larry 4 years, 7 months ago

We learn that there's money to be made from prohibiting nature then imprisoning fellow citizens who dare shirk their responsibility to "obey" those in costume calling themselves authority... ;-)

Would you like fries with your Police State, Sir?

Crazy_Larry 4 years, 7 months ago

Assume much? Because, you know... Don't cha!?! Margins are too small? Too small, indeed! If you're in the "Just Us" system then you may just be part of that bloated government bureaucracy you despise so much...I wear a costume! Respect my authoritah!

deec 4 years, 7 months ago

Yeah, it's kind of like how no one paid and is paying booze taxes after prohibition ended, either. Colorado and Washington are projecting millions of dollars in new tax revenue from excise taxes if approved by voters.

Medical State sales tax collected FY2012 $5,409,622.

Kyle Neuer 4 years, 7 months ago

Sounds like Capitalism to me. Supply and demand. Where are all the "free market" enthusiasts at the J-W?

Curveball 4 years, 7 months ago

Isabelle, probably lots of other people are involved that have made lots of money, untaxed. Have you ever noticed how many new banks have sprung up in town over the last 15 years or so? I'd be real curious to know how much of an effect this underground economy has had on Lawrence. I don't think legalizing it and taxing it is a solution. You would probably end up with two sources, the taxed higher priced marijuana and the off-the-record seller who supplies it at a cheaper price. If a dealer is taxed it means more than sales tax, it would also eventually mean more income tax for the dealer. Why would a dealer want to mess with sales taxes and also increase his income tax liability?And for the buyer, why would they want to pay more for the same product?

local_support 4 years, 7 months ago

The law of supply and demand is what ultimately drives the underground drug market. The "high" profit margins are due to strong demand for a product the traditional marketplace is unable to provide. In one of the articles it states that a pound of pot sells for 2K in California. Locally that same pound sells for 4K. The only difference? "Just down the street...are two medical marijuana shops." Supply is consistent and readily available in the Golden State, while here it is not. Demand in both locations is similar to what it is here, at least in respect to amounts for personal consumption.

If marijuana were legalized, I guarantee you would see an overnight transformation as the traditional marketplace would quickly begin meeting demand. Increased competition and supply would lead to a drop in prices. Accordingly, illicit drug dealers would disappear overnight, unable to compete with economies of scale, efficient supply chains, professional branding and marketing campaigns, etc. The easy money would no longer be easy, and criminals would be out of the pot game.

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