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This podcast is intended for mature audiences, listener discretion is advised. By the end of 2010, Tre was sending the bulk of his pot out of state, a fact Andrew Cohen discovered when he witnessed a mountain of trees weed in a Minneapolis basement.
I mean, it's very distinct. You cannot miss these things. It's the writing. It's the Sharpie, it's the double bag.
But those were the syndicate's early days trigger. Most of his weed inside his garage and eventually the garage wouldn't cut it. The property in the small town of Larkspur couldn't provide the growing space tree needed to expand. Besides, he was renting the mansion, and when the owner listed it for sale, he knew that real estate agents and buyers would soon be snooping around the premises. They'd all see his pot farm and even with his caregiving certificates, might ask questions.
He didn't want any added scrutiny.
So he tore it all down. It was just the kick he needed to get out of rural Colorado and into the big city, Denver.
Over the next year, Tretick, his cannabis cultivation from a cottage industry to full scale industrialization.
He rented several multi thousand square foot warehouses and filled them with rows upon rows of leafy cannabis plants. Denver currently has more than 600 cannabis cultivation facilities for both medical and recreational marijuana. Those numbers are much higher than in 2011, when Tree moved to the city. But even back then, he could camouflage his operation by posing right alongside existing facilities that were sprouting up all over within his nondescript warehouses.
It looked like he was growing. Entire forests of plants in each building completely reeked of weed. But that was also normal.
Tree found his warehouses within Colorado's ground zero of cannabis cultivation, the industrial zones bordering Interstate 70 and 25, west and north of downtown Denver. On a windy day, heck, even not on a windy day, the neighborhoods of global malaria, Swanzey, Valverde and Asmar Park give off the aroma of a freshly rolled joint. Trees grow, houses fit right in. And with this caregiving paperwork, no one would think twice about another pot warehouse. He could effectively hide in plain sight.
But while it would take years for the cops to catch a lead, he couldn't hide from everyone. Other black marketeers knew what he was up to and how much his harvests were worth. And these people were much more dangerous than the police, a constant threat that they needed to guard against.
Yeah, so we had a pretty serious security system set in place where you can view every single room, every hallway, the kitchen, the dry room, the dry racks, everything. So I remember one afternoon actually checking the cameras.
This is Adam Tili. He worked as a bud, tender, phratry, who watered, trimmed and cultivated cannabis at one of the warehouses till he told me about a time he had just harvested 60 pounds of weed and on a whim decided to pull up an app on his phone to check the warehouses. Security footage.
The feed from the dry room should have been full of freshly cut plants, but the room was empty, the pot was all gone.
And I was like, What the hell?
And I drove to the facility, immediately noticed that the back door was busted open. And Beyonce showed up with a little handgun violence match with the syndicate security chief and engaged to one of three sisters.
Hatch drew his gun and motioned Tilley to follow him closely. And we did another little walkthrough as I'm walking behind him till he held his breath. Each time they poked their heads around a row of crops, he thought an intruder would strike, but the place was empty.
Later, when they checked the security tapes, they saw that they'd just missed the thieves.
And we saw four or five guys that had put license plate covers over their vehicle, jumped out of the vehicle, tried to pop the door, couldn't get it the first time, drove away, came back five minutes later, something like that.
The second time the masked men pried the outer door off its hinges with a winch.
And once they were inside, it's like they knew exactly where they were going because it was very to the T like it wasn't like, oh, run in this room, see what's in here, run in this room, see what's in here. It was run upstairs, go through the kitchen hanger. Right. And it's right there. I think it took all of like three and a half minutes and they were in and out.
The thieves executed their heist with military precision. The professionalism spooked Tilly, but the theft also pissed him off. He'd been proud of this harvest. He'd labored over every bud. And the worst part, he couldn't do anything about it, because when criminals steal from criminals, no one calls the cops. I'm Chris Walker, your guide in this series about high flying pot smugglers, the rise and fall of a criminal enterprise in the evolution of marijuana's black market in the era of legal weed from Fox Lip-Sync and Imperative Entertainment.
This is the syndicate.
You might be wondering why thieves would target the syndicates grows when there were pot warehouses all over Denver. The answer is simple trees facilities made for especially lucrative targets. The syndicate didn't just develop a reputation for high quality weed, but also huge harvests.
In this episode, we'll look at the steps we took to prop up what was arguably the syndicate's biggest accomplishment, becoming one of the most prolific pot producers in the state, all while hiding in plain sight for years.
But how did they get so big? Well, the devil is in the details. It all starts with trees moved to Denver. You see, it was one thing for him to run the caregiver ruse when he was growing pot and garages and rented mansions.
Each of those spaces was small enough that a single registered caregiver, whether that was him or someone like Andrew Cohen, could fill it out with the cannabis plants the state had approved for patients.
But the scale of things completely changed once he moved his operations into the city. Now he needed to fill entire warehouse floors, spaces way bigger than just what one grower needed for a handful of patients.
Now we're talking forty six thousand watt lights and 6000 square foot of room to do with it.
I met Adam Tilley outside of Dallas, Texas, where he currently lives. Tilley recalls that even in a rapidly growing cannabis industry, trees grow. Houses stood out for their sophistication in that velho place.
There was probably 18 different rooms, you know, so there was 10 rooms that had multiple different flower stages. So every week they were taking something down in Vallejo, the syndicate's main facility borrowed its name from the street.
It was on Vallejo. Some called it the mothership. In what Tilly described was akin to a Ford production line for cannabis, workers constantly shuffled cannabis plants between rooms to receive optimum care, water amounts, nutrient mixes, wind speeds at various moments in their life cycles.
This took micromanagement to an absurd level, almost more corporate than some of the true businesses I've worked at that have been businesses for 20 years.
It was all in the name of speeding up harvests and increasing yields. Tree expected a lot from his growers, but at least until his case, he appreciated Tree's enthusiasm.
He was a good boss and Tree was a nice guy. He was an incredible dude. I like tree a lot. Honestly, he would always ask, how are you doing on money? Do you need more money?
I do remember one occasion where I said, yes, I need more money. And I think he pulled like a grand or two grand out of his backpack and just handed me two grand. It was just like, here you go, trees.
Investment in his employees seemed to pay off. They worked hard for him. Most marijuana warehouses run by experienced growers do well with just two pounds of harvested flour per plant. Often it's less than that tree's growing game was on steroids.
So three pounds is like an insane amount per. It's incredible.
That's three pounds of dried smokeable flour taken from one plant during its lifecycle till he gives a lot of credit for that. To trees.
Sisters Sheila and Liz, I believe, were a huge part of writing this whole manual that was handed out to multiple people in the Grove facilities.
Sheila Larenz and Liz Tran both join their brother Terry in Denver in 2011.
Sheila was a stickler for detail and ran the operation like a general that included browbeating employees with a growing manual that she wrote up for Tree.
It was basically like an Excel spreadsheet. It would give you what we gear in the name of the product that you're going to feed at the exact mills based on how many gallons it was taking at the time. So it was a pretty well calculated and laid out type of deal.
Sure enough, by following the manual, Tilly took his growing to new heights. He felt like a kid in a candy shop.
I've smoked weed since I was probably fourteen, fifteen years old, so I was very interested in living in that culture in Denver. It was very exciting to be like, oh, I finally get my end into something of growing weed and doing it legally. Or so I thought at the time when I initially had met him. I heard the line about initially thinking it was legal from a lot of people at this point, we're not going to dissect the plausibility of each and every denial.
Many people stayed involved even after it was clear that the syndicate made more money than it should have on the up and up. Their reasons for joining and their reasons for staying varied as much as their backgrounds.
But he did try to recruit people who wouldn't ask too many questions. These included family members and college friends, but also people he felt he could control. One of them was his childhood friend's mom. Between the years of 1967 and 1972, over 300 commercial airplanes were hijacked worldwide, this period would become known as the golden age of hijacking.
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Alicia Ranie was 69 years old when she joined the syndicate. By far the oldest person involved in 2019. I met her inside a noisy Starbucks in St. Paul, Minnesota. It's funny the way it comes out.
I mean, I meet and greet people all day long in my son's shop, and I don't tell every single one of them I've been to jail.
Ranie raised her kids in Rochester, Minnesota. Her son Justin went to high school with Tre. Rainey, kept in touch with him after the boys had graduated in tree, attended her son's wedding in Minnesota in 2011.
And I was happy to see all of Justin's circle of friends. I remember them as children and here they are in their 40s or 30s and I was just amazed to see them.
The wedding wasn't just a reunion, though. For some, it was also a networking opportunity.
And then all of a sudden I'm standing there alone without anybody around me.
And I see t I should note at this point that many people who are close to try, including his siblings, call him T for short.
And so we go over to the bar. Both of us were drunk. So we're sitting at the bar, we're talking.
And then at some point we were standing because he said to me, come with me and Co. When he does this, Ranie made jazz hands at me from across the table.
It's legal, he says. You get a big smile on his face. At first, Rainey figured her son's friend was kidding. Rainey didn't know the first thing about growing pot, but Tre doubled down. He insisted this was a serious business proposition and that Rainey should come to Colorado. She maintained her skepticism. After all, she'd known him when he was growing up.
He grew PartnerSource for years. That's where he made his money. How do you think he traveled? He was a teenager.
Rainey also thought back to all the time she'd interacted with Tre when he was hanging around her son.
He was good looking. He was quiet. He was introspective.
But Tre was an odd friend in conversation. You never knew what to expect.
He liked to brag, I guess. He told me he could build an atom bomb. He told me he could spot a fly on a black road from I don't know how many feet away. I don't even believe that you can spot a fly on the road, you know, 20 feet ahead of you because you have vision that great, who cares? But to him, it was important. These were bombastic statements that I just let pass. She let them pass because as she later told investigators, somehow she had acquired a very good reputation, a solid reputation of being very smart.
I don't mean normally smart. I mean just smart.
And he had had several businesses in Minnesota that were successful.
This included the lighting business that Andrew Cohen mentioned, the last episode, and they did LNT Street Lights.
He had told me that he had done all the streetlights for the city of St. Paul.
And so all this was in the back of Raney's mind is tree slurred his way through his business pitch. Tree told Ranie she would be a caregiver in charge of cultivating 24 to 99 cannabis plants per patient. She'd be like an investor in a co-op, he said, giving most of the proceeds of each harvest to him, but keeping some for herself.
In the sweetest part, he said, you can make 10000 dollars a month. I mean, I made 20 dollars an hour and my best, my best years. And I said, I'll think about it. And so when I left there, I thought to myself, my husband died. I have no house. I have really no income.
On top of that, she had another son to consider. And the other thing was Jordan. Jordan was always in pain.
Ranie son, Jordan, not the one getting married, had multiple sclerosis and had almost died in the hospital. The disease paralyzed him from the waist down and had left him in a wheelchair.
Terri was telling us his father had cancer, but marijuana cured his father. That's what he told us. And he says he was telling us all about the medicinal value tree claim that cannabis could help Rainey's son, she teared up at the thought more than anything else. She wanted to help Jordan. So within days of the wedding, she went back to try to gauge how serious he was about the offer.
I just asked for casual questions. I don't have enough money to pay rent when I moved there. His answer was, we'll help you out. You're going to make money. When you get there, you'll have plenty of money.
It was all rainy, needed to here. She packed her bags and made the move to Colorado. Rainey was just one of dozens, at least half of the members of the syndicate had roots in Minnesota, a chain migration of friends and family members drawn by trees. Words into Colorado's green rush when the 69 year old arrived in Colorado, reassigned, assigned to a room in one of his warehouses and as the steward of a room, she'd be responsible for growing her own roster of plants and turning over all of the harvest to tree.
But before she could start, there were some bureaucratic hurdles. First, she had to obtain a medical marijuana card to grow cannabis for herself. All she needed to do was visit a doctor's office.
This was the biggest scam I have ever seen. It was so obviously a scam. He took your heartbeat and checked your pulse and you told him, oh, I have back pain, neck pain and my my knees hurt and my I have terrible nightmares. They don't give a shit that the doctors have lines going down the street. I mean, really, anybody in law enforcement that had two eyes, two hands and two years would know that this is bullshit scam or not.
Ranie got her medical marijuana card for 35 bucks, which not only allowed her to buy medical marijuana, but grow 24 plants for her own consumption. The next step, visiting a second doctor's office to apply for an official caregiving license. Trees medical connection for that doctor, Richard Cohen. Tili also mentioned him.
We always used to use Dr. Cohen. He's been a big name down there. I know he's gone under some fire for how easy? I mean, he hands those things out like packs of Skittles.
Dr. Richard Cohen is no longer practicing. He's retired now. He's eighty seven.
But I reached his son, Robert Cohen, who runs Cohen Medical Centers over the past decade. His dad prescribed thousands of medical cards and caregiving licenses. I wanted to know how someone like Alicia Rainey, completely new to the state and was zero growing experience, could get a caregiving license so easily.
Was there any vetting whatsoever of caregivers? And how was someone approved as a caregiver?
Somebody would come in and say, you know, this is my caregiver. There wasn't much on our side that we could say, you know, who is this guy?
What does he do? There's some question about this. But as Cohen describes it, a patient would come in with his or her caregiver in with just a verbal acknowledgement that they knew each other. A notary at the doctor's office would approve the caregiving relationship. That's it. The state never required doctors to do background checks. Approved caregivers could then have at least five patients and grow a prescribed number of plants for each one.
Dad used to write for forty eight plants, but those would be people from rural areas. That's 48 plants per patient.
Anybody else in town could get twenty four and they still can. OK, so let's do the math on this, a minimum of 24 plants per patient, at the very least, a caregiver like Alicia Ranie could be approved for a total of 120 plants for five patients, plus, in her case, an additional 24 plants to grow for herself. So 144 plants total. And Ranie was just one of the caregivers that grew pot and trees, giant warehouses.
This was the ploy tree used to scale up production right under the state's nose by partitioning a large floorspace into multiple rooms designated to individual caregivers. Tree could combine all of their pot plants and max out the warehouse.
On paper, it would look like each room was a separate marijuana grow, even though in reality all the growers produce for tree. On top of that, the syndicate's patients received no more than two ounces of weed each month is Adam Tilley pointed out.
That's a paltry amount compared to some of the three pound per plant harvest that the syndicate's growers produced.
And that's when you start to really understand. It's like when you walk into a room and there's thirty two plants in there, 20 plants or whatever, and there's 70 to 80 pounds of weed in there and you're like, this is enough weed to give to patients weed for the next 15 years.
Rainy also says the economics didn't make sense, as she told detectives.
So I'm thinking when he's telling me about the patient model, how much do I give to patients? How much do I charge them? And if I charge them, how do you know how much I sold them? How do you keep track of what I'm selling? I mean, these are all the questions that are going through my mind. I asked him, do I need to report to exactly what I sold?
She's referring to Tree. And he said, no, don't worry about that, because you don't sell it, you give it away. And I did say, well, where does money come from? But I didn't get an answer.
Instead, he spelled out exactly what the caregivers had to do. After ranie harvested her plants, she would deliver the tiny amounts allotted to her five patients and turn over the remainder to tree.
She wasn't a great grower, perhaps the worst in the syndicate.
Her plants only produced a pound of flour per harvest, which was less than half of what Terry and his sisters expected. Even so, she had no idea that her monthly harvest fetched about 50000 dollars in the black market.
Tree usually paid her about eight thousand dollars in cash per delivery, a fraction of the harvest true value.
And then he demanded something weird. He immediately asked for more than half of the money back.
60 percent of the harvest was his automatically 10 percent paid for expenses. And the rest is ours.
He said the 60 percent was to cover rent, but rather than just deducted from her pay, Trist Rainey and all of his other caregivers to go to specific supermarkets and gas stations around Denver to exchange the cash for money orders, I brought money to the supermarket and got money orders for them.
The money orders had to be it amounts equal to or less than 1000 dollars, so people constantly put in nine hundred ninety nine dollars.
That's because this was all about money laundering. Every money order got labeled as rent and was under the caregivers name. The payments looked clean. In effect, Tree was just a landlord collecting fees from his tenants. Oh, and remember the amount on those money orders, nine hundred ninety nine dollars, because that number is money laundering magic, it'll come up later. Suffice it to say, none of this worked in Raney's favor.
She only took home a fraction of what her harvest sold for.
And I remember trying to do the math, trying to I should have I there were times I told myself I should be writing things down. I should be writing the dates of the harvest down. I should be writing down the amount of poundage. I should be writing down the amount of money that I got. But. For some reason, I didn't. To women who hoped to evade the ticking clock of time, Dr. Frederick Brandt was the most potent drug dealer in the world and the dealer got high on his own supply.
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The caregiving in money laundering schemes weren't the only ones Trai ran to stay off the cops radar. Another involved electricity bills.
Pakoras suck up a tremendous amount of juice and energy bills, or one of the easiest ways for law enforcement to sniff out illegal facilities.
So to avoid scrutiny, Trai had employees pay the bills in cash at big box stores that offer utility services. Tilley recounts making one of these errands.
So I literally went into a Kmart with like seventeen thousand dollars and stood at the friggin front counter and I was like, I want to go to an office. They're like, No, we can do it right here.
So I'm just like counting about ten thousand dollars.
And then they're like, that'll pay for that bill. All right. And then we'll do the next one.
Not exactly your average trip to Kmart.
You know, normally people come in there with, like, you know, one hundred and fifty to two hundred dollars worth of an electric bill.
Well, normally I just pay it online.
Yeah, well, and you just couldn't do that at that time because it raised concern each of these unusual requests, each piece of the puzzle fit together in order to hide the syndicate's activities.
All of it was to make the syndicate seem above board. But at a certain point, there was no getting around the fact that this was an illegal operation. In a taped interrogation, another syndicate member describes the packaging process, I was shown how to package the way she wanted it done. Everything was set up on a table upstairs at Filho with bags, scales, numbers written on the wall to specific. This is what the test away. You would wear gloves because of the stickiness and the mess of everything, that you would package everything into a food saver, heat seal bag and one pound increments because it was the easiest way to keep track of how much product came out of every room.
And after it was sealed, it was wiped down with bleach rags and it was put up against the wall to dry.
The bleach layer hid the smell of cannabis from detection by humans and dogs after that, somebody I never really knew who would put them all into black garbage bags. And from there, they would be kept either upstairs in the dry room area or downstairs at the valet location, and they would keep them in there.
So to recap, one pound heat, sealed bags, a layer of bleach, another bag around that all thrown into larger duffel or garbage bags. This pot wasn't going to end up in a patient's bong fertilizer. It also explained the break in he told us about at the beginning of the episode.
So they ended up stealing one of the 55 gallon soy sauce. Drums is what we use to fill up all over water.
They ended up filling that thing full of weed, dragging it down the stairs and throwing the whole thing in the back of their jeep till they saw the highest for what it was drug dealers stealing from other drug dealers in many ways, the perfect crime. But Tillie wasn't so sure this was a one and done operation.
It was almost eerie to the point where you thought it was like an inside job. Somebody knew, I'm not going to say any name. Somebody might have owed somebody some money and was like, listen, I can't pay you, but I can tell you this is ready or something like that.
And for Tilly, having a mole within leaking secrets about the syndicate's security was more concerning than the organization's obvious black market activity. Who was ratting on them?
What sort of divisions did the syndicate have internally? And if someone would sell out tree in the syndicate to rival criminals, would they just as soon talk to the police? All these were good reasons to jump ship. But Tilley explains why he stayed.
I call them the dark days of my life. You know, I was into partying and consumption of all different types of things to a point where, you know, that that type of stuff didn't even faze me.
It didn't seem to cross my mind as, oh, are we going to get busted and potentially be spending time in prison? Those thoughts I didn't really seem to think about. I wasn't even processing those as a whole.
Had Tilly known what was really going on, the incredible lengths that his bosses were going through to ship pot out of state and the dangerous infighting going on behind the scenes, maybe he wouldn't have stayed because unbeknownst to Tilly and Rainey, there had already been a few disasters that nearly brought down the whole operation as low level members of the syndicate.
They were mostly privy to the production side of the operation when it came to growing pot tree dotted as I's and cross his T's. The supply chain ran like clockwork, ramping up.
But on the distribution side, there were all kinds of problems, problems that tried to work out or the whole gambit might blow up. On the next episode of the syndicate Pest Control, as the syndicate tries to move its product across state borders, it runs into personnel issues and all the bullshit that was going on between people.
From up here and down there, starting to really get at people. We got sloppy. From shifting neck to fat cat garbage breath to crazy Tom, can the syndicate's drug mules get their act together before a loose cannon sinks the ship?
What the fuck makes these people think they can drive to my warehouse at 3:00, 4:00 in the morning, drunk back and forth and fuck this shit up?
One man that cops called the enforcer steps in to get everyone in line. Shit. Got real sketchy. Real sketchy. But we didn't stop with just. We're bigger, that's coming up on Episode four of the Syndicate. The syndicate is a co-production of Imp. Entertainment and Fox Topos Inc executive producer is Jason Hoak, produced and edited by Laura Krantz and Scott Carney. The syndicate is scored and mixed by Louis Weeks. I'm your host and creator, Chris Walker.
This podcast was made possible in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Visit the Syndicate podcast Dotcom for more about this story. And don't forget to tell your friends about the syndicate. If you're enjoying it, please leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts. It really helps more people find out about our show. From the Westwood One podcast network.