Out of work and angry after the worst years of his life, David Winkle didn’t have to look far from his property in Humboldt County to see his comeback.
Beneath old growth forests in the Mad River Valley, in a town that had witnessed the decline of the timber industry, “everyone around me was growing weed and making good money, too,” he said.
So in 2009, after the cancer death of his wife of 13 years, after his double hip-replacement surgery, after the economic downturn drove him out of the construction business, Winkle, then 53, decided to reinvent himself – as a marijuana grower and drug trafficker called “Papa Winks.”
To conceal his dealings, Winkle created Blue Lake Fishing Products, a phony company that was shipping pallets – marked as bait and tackle but packed with pot – to drug dealers in New York.
“Dave didn’t just want to grow a little weed for himself,” said Winkle’s close friend Terry Wold, 62. “He wanted to make some money on it. ... He was good at it. He was a hell of a salesman.”
“I was taking on a personality,” Winkle said. “I’m walking around with $10,000 in my pocket, thinking I’m pretty, pretty important. I’m one of the guys from Humboldt now. And it is going to my head.”
Winkle’s later-life career change, a story dramatic in its details of risky business, sudden riches and an inauspicious demise, is just one colorful thread in the vast tapestry of the California marijuana black market that supplies much of America with high-grade, illicit pot.
California is home to a burgeoning state-sanctioned medical marijuana industry, and a November ballot initiative – Proposition 64 – seeks to legalize possession and sales of pot for recreational use. Yet authorities say criminal trafficking from California is expected to continue for years, as long as there are other states with more restrictive marijuana laws and higher prices for weed – as much as a 300 percent per-pound mark-up.
“There will continue to be a black market as long as it is illegal any place else,” said Lt. Bryan Quenell, the sheriff’s drug task force commander in Humboldt County. “It’s economics 101, supply and demand.”
For some, the lure of black market bounties proves intoxicating. In a recent case in point, Yuba County narcotics officer Christopher Mark Heath and two associates were arrested in January on charges of transporting 247 pounds of marijuana to western Pennsylvania, worth an estimated $2 million. Federal authorities say the trio grew marijuana and that Heath’s mother-in-law, an Oroville post office supervisor, helped ship 200 pounds of pot to Pennsylvania.
While the California medical marijuana economy is valued as high as $2.7 billion by industry research companies, estimates of the out-of-state black market are elusive. But lawmakers often cite a 2006 report that valued the California marijuana crop at $13.8 billion, with 8.6 million pounds of pot production, much of it satisfying demand of users in other states.
Papa Winks’ experience illustrates that robust reality. After his life cratered, Winkle began growing hundreds of pounds of weed on his Blue Lake property. His barn blazed with indoor lamps and his lush outdoor garden – supervised by a skilled cultivator – climbed a mountainous slope beneath coastal redwoods.
Soon bundles of cash were arriving at his door. The money gave him the quintessential Humboldt County marijuana lifestyle: big parties with hired bands, a sleek new truck, seats at the World Series within peanut-throwing distance of Barry Bonds.
He was reflecting on this recently at his sister’s house in Blue Lake. An ankle bracelet on his right leg monitored his house-detention via satellite, a requirement of early release from federal prison on a five-year marijuana trafficking sentence handed down by a United States district judge in Rochester, N.Y.
With silver hair and a demeanor seemingly more professorial than pot dealer, Winkle was sharing his story to urge would-be marijuana entrepreneurs to operate legally in California’s state-regulated cannabis sector instead of chasing riches as interstate outlaws.
Douglas Gregory, a federal prosecutor in New York, portrays Winkle as “an individual who allowed greed and the thrill of the business to overcome an otherwise positive character.”
But in Humboldt County, Papa Winks is described as just another “midlevel guy” who was moving weed, however audaciously. “He is no Scarface,” said Quenell.
These days, Winkle reflects soberly on his nearly 40-year relationship with marijuana in arguably California’s most renowned pot county. It began when he first toked on a joint at 17 while attending Arcata High School and ended at 56 when United States marshals and federal and local drug agents swarmed his property.
“I never thought of marijuana as a drug,” Winkle said. “I always smoked pot. It was instant gratification, an instant change from reality.”
Ultimately, that “instant gratification” would inspire him to become an ambitious trafficker, with nary a thought about the risks. For a time, he loved it. The money. The adventure. The sense of prestige.
Now he questions it all.
‘Big from the get go’
David Winkle’s grandfather was a logger. His dad was a “cat-skinner,” a bulldozer operator dragging timber to log trucks. His mother was an office manager for a wood products company. Winkle figured his career path was certain when he enrolled at Humboldt State University to study business management. He also played baseball there before opting for a pot-savoring intramural softball team named Heilthtyme – for “high all the time.”
Winkle, who later completed his degree at Lewis and Clark College in Lewiston, Idaho, dropped out of Humboldt State when a sales job opened at McNamara & Peete, the timber firm that employed his mother. He ascended quickly in the industry – becoming a lumber broker for Louisiana Pacific and, later, a regional general manager for Ensworth Forest Products. There, his salary topped out at $100,000 by 1990.
His reputation grew as an amazing deal-maker who could sell sawdust to termites. “Oh, did he have business savvy,” said Wold, former owner of a company that made redwood slats for lattices. “In his office, Dave would always have a phone in each ear. He would have an idea ... on how to do something with a piece of lumber that nobody else had a idea for.”
In the lumber trades, Winkles’ pot use married with boozy business gatherings and eventually some hard-partying on weekends with cocaine and, in a fateful stint, methamphetamine.
His life’s volatility came to resemble that of his industry. Timber was in a steady decline, with sharp downturns and rippling effects. A redwood products company Winkle co-founded in the early 1990s went bankrupt. Two construction businesses he operated in the ensuing decade also failed.
But another industry – marijuana – was in steady ascent. By 2011, a local banker’s study estimated that Humboldt growers raked in between $1 billion and $2.6 billion in annual income. Using the conservative figure, the study estimated pot farmers spent $415 million annually in local businesses, accounting for one-fourth of the county’s economy.
Winkle’s first job in the drug trade, however, didn’t involve marijuana. In 1993, he made a criminally brazen decision, after the closure of his company Western Pacific Redwood Products, to mule small amounts of methamphetamine to Oregon and Idaho for a dealer.
“It was $1,500 for a day’s work,” he said. “And, frankly, I needed the money.”
Winkle soon drove into a drug sting by narcotics officers awaiting delivery in a park near Portland. He served a 10-month sentence, marking his 40th birthday at a minimum security prison in Coos Bay. Looking back, he said, “I had a hole in my conscience.”
That hole seem to fill when the twice-divorced Winkle married for a third time in 1995. Sue Winkle worked in a bookstore in Eureka. He moved onto her sprawling property in Blue Lake and cut logs and milled lumber for an elegant redwood home.
In 2001, the couple purchased a local franchise for a national home-remodeling company, DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen. Sue was the bookkeeper. Dave was the manager, construction superintendent and salesman. In 2005, he sold the franchise and accepted a sales executive job with the parent company.
Sue made it clear to her husband “that there would be no drugs in our relationship.” He stayed away from hard narcotics and barely touched alcohol. But marijuana remained a constant. “She would say, ‘David Winkle, are you smoking pot again?’ ” he said. “So I knew I was in trouble. But, of course, I denied it.”
In 2005, Sue was diagnosed with melanoma. She died in 2008. That same year, during the national recession, Winkle was laid off from the home-remodeling company. The downsizing left him grieving, angry, and once more in financial desperation.
Drawing on his business training, Winkle reached out to local marijuana growers and medical marijuana dispensary operators. He crunched the numbers on construction and electrical-use costs for retrofitting his weathered plywood barn with growing lamps. In 2009, Winkle sank $70,000 in inheritance money from Sue into the project.
He hired a cultivator and rented out units in a guest house and a modular home on his property to people who got medical marijuana recommendations from doctors. He offered tenants discounted rent – plus free weed – for their pot cards, which provided legal cover for growing more plants. “I wanted to go big from the get go,” Winkle said.
He arranged to sell his Grand Daddy Purple and Sour Diesel strains to a Riverside County dispensary operated by Jason Foster, a Humboldt State graduate who used to be on Winkle’s bowling team in Blue Lake. Foster initially paid Winkle $3,500 a pound. But the California medicinal market was flooding and the price was dropping fast. Foster soon cut the price to $2,800 a pound and it went down from there.
“(The market) got clogged up with everyone’s grass and it couldn’t go anywhere – at least not to dispensaries in California,” said Foster, who urged Winkle to just take less in the quasi-legal medicinal market. “You had to sell it really cheap or go somewhere else.”
Winkle set out to find other market options. His son from his first marriage, Justin, was a fishing guide on Lake Ontario, near Rochester, N.Y. He came out on summer visits, often with a trio of friends, including two former high school classmates who knew the younger Winkle as “Winks.”
Justin, now 34, told his dad he didn’t want anything to do with the pot business. Authorities confirmed he wasn’t involved. But his friends jumped in. They began driving to Humboldt County, loading cars with marijuana to resell in upstate New York and western Pennsylvania.
Winkle earned $100,000 that first year and reinvested profits in building a larger pot-growing barn. It produced four annual growing cycles, each with 297 plants and yields of 24 pounds of pot. A 99-plant outdoor garden produced more than 100 pounds in the fall harvest.
The New York dealers paid him $3,500 to $4,000 a pound. They then sold it to others for $6,000. The dealers would affectionately text “Papa Winks” the tracking numbers for FedEx “presents” – cash headed his way.
Winkle’s long-time friend, Wold, who maintained a small pot garden for personal use and supplementing his retirement, tried to talk him out of the venture. “I said, ‘You’re crazy, dude,’ ” Wold said. “I said, ‘Growing weed is one thing. But sending it across the country is another.’ He just shined me on. He had that entrepreneurial thing going on.”
Douglas Gregory, the assistant U.S. attorney in Rochester, said consumers “know they can get a high-quality product from California that cannot be grown out here” and drug dealers know they can get “double or triple” profit or more. In fact, his sellers were doing so well, Papa Winks couldn’t keep up with orders.
He began buying additional weed from other marijuana growers in Humboldt, paying them $2,000 to $2,500 a pound. Seeking to speed delivery, he took to shipping 35 pounds at a time through freight companies in Eureka, he said. Authorities said the shipments were larger.
He packed vacuum-sealed bags of pot inside plastic thermal boxes so drug-sniffing dogs couldn’t pick up the scent. He loaded more boxes – filled with fishing reels, lures and bait – on the top layer of pallets and wrapped it all in shrink paper with the Blue Lake Fishing Products logo.
Always the salesman, Winkle treated trucking company officials to lunch, giving them gifts of fishing gear bought online from China. “I enjoyed taking the shipments to their yards and then tracking them across the country,” he said. “That gave me a rush.”
With the money, Papa Winks bought a new diesel-powered pickup. He threw blow-out parties at his mountain home. He plunked down $1,200 each for tickets for the 2010 World Series, watching his beloved San Francisco Giants just six seats away from retired Giants hero Barry Bonds.
As Winkle reveled in it, his son regretted ever introducing his friends to his dad. “I told him a few times that he’s getting a little too big for his britches, taking too many chances,” Justin said.
In 2010, Winkle and his grower split $400,000 from the operation. He expected to reap $750,000 by the end of 2011. He wasn’t a pot baron by Humboldt standards. But Papa Winks was on his way.
Busted at the border
The demise of Blue Lake Fishing Products began at the Rainbow Bridge Port of Entry in Niagara Falls, N.Y., on July 22, 2011.
Blaine Gardner, a dealer for Winkle, was driving north to a music festival in Niagara Falls with three passengers. They entered a wrong address into their GPS, missed a turn and wound up at the Canadian border. “At that point they were screwed,” Gregory said. When they doubled back to the U.S entry point, they were searched by customs agents.
Officers reported finding 20.75 grams “of a green, leafy substance.” But the fact one of the passengers was an unauthorized immigrant with an expired U.S. residence permit triggered questions beyond the pot. The occupants of the car started talking.
Winkle said Gardner called him days later and apologized: “We were going to a concert and we got stupid.” The call was being recorded. His dealers were dishing to the government about Papa Winks.
According to a federal criminal complaint, a confidential informant told authorities of shipping $60,000 to Winkle on the same day as the traffic stop. Agents also pulled a text from Gardner’s phone about another payment of $35,000.
On Aug. 18, agents for New York State Police and the Department of Homeland Security were waiting when pallets they said were carrying 42 pounds of marijuana arrived at the home of Gregory Babcock, a dealer by then working with authorities.
Three weeks later, on Sept. 11, 2011, heavily armed agents from the U.S. Marshals Service and federal, state and local agencies arrived at Winkle’s door. He gave up immediately.
Gardner was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison and Babcock and Stephen Pace got 12 months each. Gregory said the feds easily could have nailed Papa Winks with 10 years or more, given the brazen nature of the trafficking scheme and his past conviction as a meth mule. But he said authorities considered Winkle’s long good standing in the timber and construction industries in agreeing to a plea deal for five years.
After three years and 10 months in prison, Winkle was released this spring to a halfway house and then to monitored detention at his sister’s home in Blue Lake. He is 40 pounds lighter, lean and muscled after his incarceration, his now-reflective persona a far cry from what he embraced as Papa Winks.
Other than for work and required drug testing, Winkle only is allowed out for mid-mornings and afternoons on Saturdays and Sundays. On those days, he often drives to the forested property where he lived with Sue and became a pot trafficker after her death. Their former house is rented out because he can’t afford the mortgage.
Winkle, drug free, hopes he never touches pot again. It isn’t because of marijuana’s intoxicating effects. It’s because he wants to have a clear view of the reckless decisions in his life. “I want to know why I made these stupid choices,” Winkle said. “I want to understand myself. Why do I take these risks? Why do I not think about the consequences?”
In pot-friendly Humboldt County, there is no stigma attached to Winkle’s arrest. When he recently dropped by the Almquist Lumber store in Blue Lake, owner Eric Almquist offered him a job with his saw mill. “I think anyone would be tempted by the great rewards of selling marijuana,” Almquist said. “It is endemic here. I don’t hold it against him.”
Winkle is earning $11 an hour as a wood production supervisor, paying 25 percent of his salary to the government until his sentence ends in October. Almquist said he plans to promote Winkle and is counting on this born-again lumber broker to help grow the business.
Meanwhile, the man formerly known as Papa Winks is exploring another growing venture, one far less prohibited than marijuana: hops for beer.
“Hops bring in $20 a pound,” he said, citing his own market study. “I’m researching it.”