Editor's Note: This transcript was automatically transcribed, so mistakes are inevitable. You can contribute by proofreading the transcript or highlighting the mistakes. Sign up to be amongst the first contributors.
This podcast is intended for mature audiences, listener discretion is advised. Driving along Interstate 35 in Kansas can feel like a dream, endless green fields and pastures stretch out from the turnpike in all directions. It's a beautiful, almost mesmerizing kind of monotony. You can drive for hours and feel like you're in the same place, God's country, America's heartland. But like any dream, it has to end sometime, the moment Joe Johnson heard the siren, he knew it was all over.
There would be no getting out of this one, not this time. This was a screw up of epic proportions.
And like a film reel, the mistakes leading up to this moment flickered through Joe's mind as a cop approached his window. For starters, he probably shouldn't have tried to drive 100 miles in a straight shot with no sleep. He shouldn't have gotten hopped up on cocaine and Red Bull. He shouldn't have allowed his gas tank to run nearly empty. And he definitely shouldn't have gotten into a fight with another driver at a filling station yelling, banging on the other guy's window, threatening to pull him out of his car.
No, he probably shouldn't have done those things, at least not with 374 grand a gun and 66 pounds of marijuana sitting in the back of his minivan license registration.
Because here's the thing. This wasn't just about Joe Johnson. His roadside arrest set off a cataclysmic series of events. The raid uprooted a massive drug ring, growing marijuana here, shipping thousands of pounds of it and netting more than 12 million dollars over the last four years. It was all hiding in plain sight. These 32 people, they're all accused of playing a part in the largest pot bust since marijuana was legalized in our state.
In Colorado, weed is legal, but it's not in plenty of other states creating opportunities involving great risk and even greater rewards. The rewards are so tempting that in Denver, a group of college friends carried out a brazen scheme. Sour diesel, green crack, strawberry cough. I would say there was probably 10 to 15 different strains at any given time. They cultivated weed and huge, seemingly legitimate warehouses while actually they had their system set up to where it's not going to be a dispensary.
It also wasn't staying within the state. So where was it going? Over the next eight episodes, the story behind a case, it was kind of one of those things to her is like maybe the less you know, the better that redefined what it means to be a criminal organization in the era of legal weed.
This was the biggest scam I have ever seen. It was so obviously a scam.
My name is Chris Walker, I'm a journalist, and for years I've been investigating this group's rise and fall that's involved, chasing down drug mules, flying in a town, cocaine, girls, booze, you know, I mean, we're exchanging half a million dollars at a time.
The detectives who doggedly pursued them by just pure, just ESX.
You can see the black market has exploded in a cannabis kingpin who took advantage of loopholes in Colorado's medical marijuana laws, all the while keeping his organization afloat in the face of rivalry's robberies, explosions and spies. Because by the end of this group's run in the black market, it had forever changed the ways that state's law enforcement agencies and the cannabis industry combat the underground economy. From Fox to sink in, imperative entertainment, welcome to the syndicated. There are a lot of moving parts to this case, the origin story of the smuggling group goes back decades and spans continents throughout its reign on the black market.
It involved dozens of individuals. Each played an important and unique role. Still no individual help. The enterprise reached such heights, raking in millions a month and also sealed his fate quite like Joe Johnson. In just what was he doing with all that cash and pot in his car? Well, the truth is, Joe wasn't supposed to be on the road to begin with. A key member of the conspiracy is Joseph Johnson. His out-of-state company, Westside Skydiving, allegedly flew more than 1500 pounds of marijuana and more than two million dollars in cash.
You see, Joe is a pilot and usually he flew his pot through this guy.
And these guys were both accused of using skydiving planes and cars to traffic tens of thousands of pounds of pot out of state.
Yeah, she said skydiving. Joe Johnson was a legend in that world with more than 15000 jumps under his chute. He went by the nickname Jump and Joe, he has a whole look to go along with it to bald tattoos running up both arms fit with veins popping out around his temples. He almost looks like a skydiving Vin Diesel. Since 2010, he's owned multiple jump zones around the country and once dominated the skydiving market in Minneapolis. But how did such a free fall icon turn into a drug smuggler?
Well, as Joe explains it, skydiving in the narcotics trade are more interconnected than you might think. And for Joe, that began in Minnesota.
I grew up in Santa Maria, Minnesota. In his 20s, Joe worked construction, swinging a hammer 12 to 14 hours a day.
He remembers working so much that he had no time for hobbies until one year.
The spring of 2000, my wife bought me my first jump for my birthday.
It was meant as a fun bucket list item kind of gift. But for Joe, skydiving was life changing. He wasn't just hooked. One jump turned into 100 in his first year alone. Then he got a job in the industry. And then in 2010, I started my first drops on the West Side.
Skydiver's Joe opened West Side Skydiver's near the Twin Cities with just one little Cessna 182. That's a four seater plane with a single engine.
And then in as little as three years, we took the lead, the Minneapolis St. Paul market.
But given the types of thrill seekers that skydiving attracts, Joe soon discovered a darker side to the industry.
From the very beginning, Joe tells me there were offers, sketchy offers.
Even before I started my own place in 2010, I had made some friends and acquaintances in the industry and I knew, you know, that they smoked marijuana and that they might be in the business, so to speak.
Joe's referring to smuggling and perhaps it's not so surprising that in a line of work where you throw human cargo out of planes, some might risk carrying other types of cargo, too. In fact, it's almost assumed I was approached by a couple of different people pretty much from day one.
They know like, hey, you know, how about we use your airplane to fly out to Colorado and bring something back?
Johs, an animated talker you can hear is nylon jacket swishing around as he gestures.
And it took them three years of asking me before I said it was the motivation there. Were you thinking this was going to be like a one time thing?
You know, to be honest with you, I don't know. I mean, I think it was just the excitement, the thought of all this extra money.
It was a friend named Alex that finally convinced Joe to smuggle pot from Colorado into Minnesota, a state where weed was very much illegal. At the time, Joe only had 50 hours of training on his students pilot license. He barely knew how to fly.
But no matter that didn't deter him and my pilot. Check me out my eighty two. I did four laps around the patch, he said. Looks really good. Time taxied up, fuel up and I flew to Boulder, Colorado.
What they say is true takeoffs are much easier than landings once Joe is in the air. He thought pretty good about flying ten times further than he ever had. Just keep the plane steady, avoid ominous clouds and be sure you're good on.
Oh, sorry to run out of gas, Jahad. Let the tank run so low, which appears to be a trend for him that he wasn't sure the props would keep spinning before he hit the ground.
So I called the emergency landing and end up doing it all around while I'm running out of gas and finally, finally get the airplane on the ground.
The plane was running on fumes and managed to taxi over to the fuel pump. So I didn't officially run out of gas, but I had less than a gallon aside.
Most people at this point would be thinking, man, this is stupid. What the hell am I doing? Not Joe.
At that point, I was just trying to get the airplane on the ground. So I fueled up. I had breakfast, take a deep breath. Then I went from Greeley to Boulder, which is just a hopscotch jump over, met with my friends and had a good night and then fucking got back in the airplane with my package.
The package, as Joe puts it, was multiple duffel bags stuffed to the gills with weed. And this wasn't your parents pot. It was that dank Colorado stuff. Everyone always talked about that sticky Rocky Mountain high. Joe loaded the pot right next to the runway at Boulder's municipal airfield. It was a tight fit with so little compartment space in his Cessna. The bags occupied the three other available seats in the cockpit. On one hand, it seemed crazy to just pile the duffel bags on top of each other, unconcealed, right out in the open.
But in the twelve years he'd been skydiving, Joe had never seen anything approaching the kind of TSA hassles at a commercial airport.
Even today, all the amenities airports are just so porous and so under control.
At best, the occasional security guard might pudder by on a golf cart. No one bothered him. Joe's hard didn't start beating fast again until he lifted off, this time with the plane compartment brimming with duffel bags. He hopes the second half of his trip would be less eventful.
But my radio went out, so I lost communication with people on the way back, and I'm a brand new pilot, student pilot, so I flew through an Amoa military operating area and didn't know it.
But control towers on the ground knew it. What was this little single prop doing flying through a military zone?
And so they were like trying to call me to make sure everything was OK and they couldn't get a hold of me. So. So I land for fuel at an airport in South Dakota and sitting there, I have my package in the back of the airplane and I'm getting fuel. And a squad rolls through.
The parking lot of the squad car had been dispatched by the local police department to check in on this mysterious airplane. Joe played it cool.
He just keeps on rolling through and, you know, hey, and at that point, I'm like you sweating a little. But at the same time, you know, I'm just out flying my little my personal money to, you know. Yeah. He just wanted to make sure I was OK.
The patrolman waved at Joe, but didn't come any closer to inspect the inside of the plane. Joe hastily returned to Minneapolis. He couldn't believe his luck.
But if you think he might reconsider doing another smuggle after two close calls, he wasn't nearly spooked enough to stop. In fact, the close calls were part of the thrill.
One thing led to another, one run led to another run, and the smugglers kept getting bigger.
In the end game after I got into it was to squirrel enough cash to pay cash for a couple of caravans and be debt free.
You know, caravans are a type of twin prop aircraft manufactured by Cessna. They can fit up to 10 passengers in the back.
How much do those planes cost? Anywhere from eight hundred to a million dollars. OK, Jawan, to earn a couple mil, buy some planes and then fly safely away into the night. So, yes, part of it was about the money. If you can get past the illegal nature of his plan, it always seems reasonable, right? Except Joe didn't anticipate all the other ways he'd get sucked in.
It would be like that line from The Godfather Part three just thought I was out working or as Joe puts it, and once you're in, it is a fucking blur, dude, especially once he became involved with a bunch of outlaws growing pot in Colorado.
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.
The new podcast, American Skyjacker is the tale of a small time crook named Martin Mack McNally, who dreamed of the ultimate mile high score. But Mac's hijacking is just the beginning of an incredibly wild, true crime saga. Listen and subscribe to American Skyjacker on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. 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.
From Imperative Entertainment and the team behind Broken Hearts comes a new series that will challenge everything you know about fame, fortune and the fear of growing old. I'm Justin Harmon and this is the baron of Botox. Joe may have played a crucial role flying pot for the group, moving thousands of pounds of product through the skies. But even before Joe's involvement, his co-conspirators had already done something that no one thought would happen. They became some of the biggest black market marijuana growers in the country.
Unlike foreign cartels, this group was made in America. And as I mentioned earlier, I know the full scope of the story because I'd been looking into it for years as a reporter. I specialize in long form journalism. Assignments have taken me to look for missing climbers in Argentina, investigate a murder mystery in Mexico, and embed with an armed anti-government militia in southern Colorado. I'm always on the lookout for stories with high stakes in larger than life characters.
And I first heard about this multimillion dollar pot bust while working at Denver's alternative newspaper Westword.
Our conservative estimates are that they laundered millions of dollars in illegal drug sales, approximately 12 million dollars and up to 400 pounds of marijuana a month.
That was then Attorney General of Colorado Cynthia Coffman speaking about the marijuana bust before dozens of reporters.
And March 2015, at a press conference, she revealed the names of the individuals allegedly involved with this drug trafficking scheme. But she didn't have a name for the group. It didn't even have a nickname which had actually helped keep it off law enforcement's radar. As far as I'm concerned, that was a lost opportunity, one that I'm going to jump on from here on out, I'm going to call them the syndicate.
During the syndicate's four year smuggling run, more than 40 people grew and distributed illegal pot out of Denver within hours of the press conference.
News of the bus made headlines around the country, not least of which because the story involves skydiver's, illegal cash, bails of pot and SWAT raids. But ground up and sprinkled into the story of the syndicate, where serious questions about cannabis legalization in the United States and how legal pot and one state can alter the market for weed in the states next door. Remember, Colorado is the first state to legalize recreational weed in 2012.
It seemed that every six months a new report would come out showing marijuana sales exceeding everyone's wildest expectations.
Colorado has raked in more than half a billion dollars in revenue from recreational marijuana in 2019.
That tax revenue passed one billion dollars, boosting state funds for education, public health and, somewhat ironically, drug use prevention.
I wondered why would anyone in Colorado choose to deal in the black market when it seemed the legal industry was thriving? In many places, it's almost easy to forget that pot is still illegal at the federal level.
So how is it that we can have cancer patients using medicine in one state but they can be arrested if they cross borders with weed into a less permissive jurisdiction?
Even in states like Colorado, the entire cannabis industry is rooted in practices that were considered illegal just two decades ago.
So how do we contend with such rapid change? In what new opportunities do the shifting cannabis laws create for people who don't want to play by the rules?
I had all these questions ringing through my mind, but even so, I faced a conflicting feeling, at least initially.
Although weed continues to pose lots of complications, it also, especially recently, seems like it shouldn't be such a big deal.
It cuts to the heart of a shifting cultural attitudes.
Marijuana is basically catnip for people. It has gained increasing acceptance in recent years. In fact, one small bright spot on election night was pro marijuana referenda passing in eight states. It's obviously a big win for lovers of weed.
Even after all the turmoil in the 2016 presidential election, comedian John Oliver highlighted how marijuana legalization had advanced around the country. Fast forward to today. And marijuana is legal for recreational use in 11 states. Anyone over 21 in those states can walk into a dispensary and buy some ganja. It's legal for medical use in 33 states. Chances are, you know, someone who uses pot for medical purposes like alleviating pain, nausea and seizures.
And even as weed remains illegal at the federal level, you can see a multibillion dollar industry spreading its routes, leading to all sorts of new products and crazes.
When I go down to my local coffee shop here and I see that they're trying to sell me 10 milligrams of CBD for five bucks in my coffee, I mean, that's a trend.
That's Caven Colibri. He opened one of the first medical marijuana dispensaries in Denver in 2010. And if anyone can appreciate the sea change in the country's attitude towards pot, it's Colibri.
You did some small time feeling like way back in the day in Nebraska, right? Yes.
You know, similar to I mean, I've been living on my own since I was 16. My my family had huge financial troubles with my dad, putting us in bankruptcy twice. And I hustled. I worked full time at a restaurant. I went to school full time and I sold cannabis on the side. And that was my way of living and paying for rent. I would say there's probably only a two or three year period cut up in there in the last twenty one years of my life where I haven't sold cannabis in some form.
The law enforcement never wised up to calombaris dealing. And after he moved to Colorado, voters approved medical marijuana and he opened a dispensary in Denver. Do you feel lucky that you were able to make the transition into the legal industry? I mean, there's so many people who weren't able to do that.
I'm very fortunate and I understand that privilege. It's incumbent on these operators today to understand that they have this really amazing opportunity only because of this illicit market carrying forward for the last two years for these activists and advocates, not just myself, but tens of thousands of others across the country that have fought for this, decriminalized legalization to this regulated model. And when you look at broad support across this country, being well over 90 percent for medical use, cannabis, and now over 60 percent for adult use cannabis, it's over two thirds.
That's over two thirds now for adult use cannabis. I mean, that's a sign that if you're a Republican or Democrat, you have to face up to the fact that your constituents want this around, all of which is to say the genie is out of the bottle.
Now, pot is here to stay. We're well past the days of the devil's lettuce. And some say nationwide legalization could happen within the next few years.
So given all that again, should a pot bust even get this much attention?
It's just marijuana, right?
That was certainly the attitude of a lot of people who became involved with the syndicate.
They knew that what they were doing was illegal, but this wasn't as bad as the really serious stuff, you know, cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, meth. How much trouble could they really get in? But once I decided to look into this case, I saw a surprising pattern. Turns out weed was a gateway into a different kind of addiction.
The taste of the danger that came with the outlaw life was its own high. It was the same poll Joe felt when he did his first smuggling run. Despite nearly crashing and getting caught.
Something about it made him feel so alive like he was giving himself over to this wild world. I didn't quite understand the nature of that thrill until I made my own trip down to Texas. Deep in the conservative south of 1970s Atlanta, Mike Thebus, the son of Greek immigrants, was a man driven by endless ambition. He had everything a wife and five kids, the largest mansion in Atlanta, and a rumored 100 million dollar fortune. But the success came at a price as the community shunned him and he became entangled in a web of murder, mob connections and love affairs.
It is the money, obviously, that attracts organized crime.
I don't have any knowledge as to what happened to Mr. Hanna. He was a personal friend of mine, and I just think it's a terrible tragedy.
There's no doubt in my mind that they are nervous at first about having to do business with Mike Leavis society.
Do not take it seriously when criminals kill each other. So Mike Thebus walked out this door to freedom. Some are speculating he may be in Colombia or Costa Rica, countries which before have harbored United States criminals.
This is Gangster House, the unbelievable story of Mike Thebus family man and the so-called Sultan of smut.
Listen and subscribe to Gangster House right now on Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcasts.
Available now from Imperative Entertainment in Texas Monthly, a new 10 part podcast series called Boomtown about the biggest oil boom in history. Boomtown takes you to a rugged corner of West Texas, where roughnecks and billionaire wildcatters are fueling a boom so big it's reshaping our climate, our economy and our geopolitics. We'll get an inside look at the people cashing in and those whose lives are turned upside down. Find weekly episodes of Boomtown wherever you get your podcasts. Chris, all the way from Denver, Colorado.
How are you doing, brother? It's a Thursday morning in the Lone Star State and I'm crammed with five others into the back of a Cessna climbing above the planes at a steep angle. I'm about to tandem jump out of an airplane with Joe. Before this trip to see him in fall twenty nineteen, he and I had only talked by phone before our first in-person meeting, he's offered to take me skydiving before we, pardon the pun, jump into our interview.
I'm still not sure why he's even talking to me, seeing as how he's one of the most prolific drug smugglers of the past decade. Don't think it hasn't crossed my mind how easy it would be to dispatch a nosy journalist through some fluke, quote, accident, you know, perhaps a loose strap or a faulty harness. But part of this is about trust. What better way to get Joe to share his story than by putting my life in his hands?
I also want a taste of the adrenaline rush that gets Joe Johnson's blood pumping, the rush of hurtling towards the earth thousands upon thousands of times in the thrill of breaking the law. Maybe by jumping with him, I can get just a hint of that high and perhaps begin to understand why he became a skydiving drug smuggler. And since I'm not about to break the law myself, I'll settle for testing gravity. I figure we're close to leveling off at 14000 feet when I feel him tighten the straps, holding us together.
Joe's going to be handling the shoot and pretty much everything else to. We're way out in the middle of the Texas plains, roughly between San Antonio, Houston and Austin, where Joe owns a jump zone called Skydive Lone Star. But I can see that's way, way below us now when another skydiver slides the plane's door open and wind rushes into the cabin. Just like that, he disappears. Joe and I start to make our own way down a beach.
We scoot forward until we're in the doorway, nothing separating us from the big empty sky sensory overload. I only have time for one deep breath and then Joe hurdle's us into the void.
When you've got nothing around you accelerating thirty two point two feet per second, every second, the intensity of freefall, of being a body and motion moving faster than you ever knew was possible almost comes as a shock to the system. It's like reaching the adrenaline junkies, nirvana, this sublime, plaintive thrill, but almost as soon as I reach it. It's over. Oh, man, that was the. Joe deploys the chute and suddenly all is peaceful.
We drift downwards and he steers us into a cloud.
It's beautiful and it occurs to me there's something important in this moment to relief, like the relief you just did something totally crazy and got away with it, life and limbs intact and most importantly, a chance to chase the same thrill again. I realize that there must be a similar sensation with drug smuggling, that there's the pure exhilaration of risking it all, then relief every time you've successfully pulled off another operation, ratcheting up the risk and thrill until. Joe gives me a high five, he starts gathering the parachute as soon as we've picked ourselves off the ground, I barely notice the hard landing.
My whole body still jitters from the jump. It's not nerves. It's something more euphoric. I can see why you'd want to do something that seems totally insane, only to want to take it up a notch. The adrenaline, the thrill. It's what members of the syndicate describe over and over as they try to convey how they got in and why they stayed even when things got so out of hand using their stories and recollections. I'm going to tell you about a world with its own set of rules, a world of big money and even bigger risks.
Much of it will defy logic. But as you'll soon find out, even that is part of the rush. Or as Joe likes to say, some crazy.
In season one of the syndicate, you'll meet the outlaws, DEA agents and boiled detectives who all played a role in one of the most significant drug cases in U.S. history. We'll get into all the sticky marijuana topics with insights from a drug historian, a hippie mafioso, and the lawyer who wrote Colorado's marijuana law. And you'll hear snippets of previously unreleased interrogation recordings.
They'll all reveal a true tale and not just of skydiving drug mules, but also an exploding hash lab.
And then he moved because he blew up his house.
DEA moles and they requested that I would wear a wire.
SWAT raids, one of the most horrifying, if not the most horrifying day in my life. Hidden cash, fast times and fast cars.
Man, did I get to have some fun and do some life experiences that not many people in the world get to experience. Hell, yeah, I did. And we'll learn about the diverse personalities and motivations of the syndicate's members, including its enigmatic kingpin. He's not scared and he's a tough guy, you know. I mean, he would have he would have gone toe to toe with me twice the size. And no one predicted how it would all implode, taking down not just the syndicate, but exposing an uncomfortable truth that the black market isn't just evolving in the era of legal weed.
It's thriving. The syndicate is a co-production of Imp. Entertainment and Fox Business Inc executive producers Jason Hoak produced and edited by Laura Krantz and Scott Carney. The syndicate is scored in mix by Louis Weekes. I'm your host and creator, Chris Walker. This podcast was made possible in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Special thanks to Patricia Calhoun and Michael Roberts at Westword. 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.