Article by Kyle Swenson, Washington Post
State police eyed the plants from a helicopter chopping over the green farmland of central Kentucky: marijuana bushes, packed into a farm wagon sitting behind some rolled bales of hay.
On May 27, 2008, law enforcement immediately landed in the area for a closer look. They discovered a watering system pumping into the plants, as well as chained rottweilers protecting the property, a search warrant would later state. In two houses on the property, police collected other evidence pointing to an extensive weed growing operation, including $2,550 cash and a loaded AR-15 assault rifle. In total, police confiscated 2,421 marijuana plants from the farm.
Police records also indicated authorities knew exactly who they were dealing with.
The farm was home to John Robert Boone, a legendary figure both in rural Kentucky and in the wider world of drug smuggling. Known as the “Godfather of Grass,” Boone was a leader in the 1980s of the “Cornbread Mafia,” a rural Kentucky-based drug organization that grew marijuana on 29 large illicit farms in 10 states. In June 1989, after 70 members of the crew were arrested by federal authorities, the U.S. attorney in Louisville said the Cornbread Mafia was the “largest domestic marijuana syndicate in American history.”
Boone served 20 years in prison for his part in the 1980s organization. The 2008 discovery at the farm seemed to indicate he was back in the drug game. But as police began searching, the country kingpin — an imposing man with a Santa Claus beard and “Omerta,” the Italian code of silence, tattooed across his back — disappeared.
He would remain on the lam until last year, when Boone was arrested in Canada.
This week, the 73-year-old Boone pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiring to grow and distribute more than 1,000 marijuana plants, court records show. It is presumably the end of a drug career powered not by the stereotypical lusts for a flashy lifestyle or power but simple economics. Boone has always maintained he was just trying to put food on the table.
Both Boone and the Cornbred Mafia were the products of a particular time and place. Washington and Marion counties in Kentucky are insular and also have a strong outlaw tradition stretching back to Prohibition, when desperate locals turned to moonshining to feed their families. In the 1980s, a bad economy again put a chokehold on the region.
“[T]he family farm was crumbling — not just one farm or another particular family but the whole notion of one family sustaining a living off one farm, the notion upon which many in Marion County and elsewhere in America had staked their livelihoods for generations,” James Higdon wrote in his book, “Cornbread Mafia: A Homegrown Syndicate’s Code of Silence and the Biggest Marijuana Bust in American History.”
“At the same time, the free market eroded Marion County’s primary crop, burley tobacco, from both ends — usage among American adults started to decline as the tobacco companies began buying burley from international markets for pennies on the dollar for what it cost them at home.”