Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey spent decades as a soldier. He enlisted in the Marines at age 18 and retired as a much-decorated colonel in the National Guard.
Today he’s waging war again, not against Al Qaeda or the Taliban, but an army of rogue pot growers who have spread throughout his sprawling county.
As California prepares to make the sale of recreational marijuana legal Jan. 1, Lopey is immersed in an ongoing battle to shut down illegal pot farms and black-market trade in this isolated county abutting Oregon. When he patrols marijuana country or leads a raid, he wears camouflage fatigues and a black University of Nevada, Reno Wolfpack baseball cap.
For his zealous efforts, Lopey has emerged as one of the most visible opponents of California’s massive pot industry, drawing allegations of racism in this predominantly white county where hundreds of Hmong newcomers who came to grow pot are blamed for the illegal marijuana trade.
His appearances on the cable TV show “Weed Country” and speeches at Tea Party events and law enforcement conferences already had made him one of the state’s most recognizable faces in the California fight to control the cannabis trade. A lawsuit alleging voter suppression in federal court, along with a bizarre bribery scheme that had Lopey wearing a wire and working with the FBI to arrest two Hmong pot growers, cemented his fame.
“We need help because of the sheer magnitude of the problem,” Lopey said in a recent interview. “We have been invaded by 2,000 illegal cultivation sites on private property, and we still have a drug cartel problem on public lands, mostly from Mexico. I’m seeing major environmental impacts, more marijuana in schools. It’s a state and national emergency.”
This fall, Lopey persuaded the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors to declare a state of emergency in the county. He forwarded the proclamation to Gov. Jerry Brown, who has yet to act on it.
Lopey said he also reached out to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recently said the Department of Justice might crack down on recreational pot despite its legalization by eight states and the District of Columbia.
Lopey said he wrote Sessions that he wasn’t targeting medical or recreational use. “We’re going after drug traffickers crossing state lines and we need federal support,” he said.
The Drug Enforcement Administration, he said, has funded him $72,000 this year.
Pot raids have shown widespread violations of county regulations passed in 2015 and toughened in 2016 banning outdoor growing, with fines that can run into the thousands of dollars, Lopey said. On a recent raid, officers found almost 3,000 plants in one parcel. Lopey estimates nearly $1 billion in illegal pot is grown annually in Siskyou.
He said he has no problem with growers who operate within the law, but the explosion of illegal pot farms in the county is putting his constituents – and the nation – at risk.
Late last month, the sheriff drove his Dodge sport utility vehicle on the black gravel roads into Mount Shasta Vista, the hilly subdivision where several hundred Hmong own parcels. A Hmong lookout at the entrance to the subdivision spotted Lopey and pulled out his cellphone. Lopey drove past properties with greenhouses and water tanks, surrounded by fences draped with black, green and blue plastic sheets. He pointed to the budding tops of pot plants rising in the background and, within days, sent in teams to eradicate the illegal grows.
As he drove through the subdivision, Lopey praised the Hmong for their ability to make something out of nothing, producing million-dollar crops on tundra. “Too bad they didn’t use their ingenuity, intelligence and skills to engage in something lawful,” he said. He was referring to the Hmong having escaped persecution, arrived as refugees from the Vietnam War and made new lives in the U.S.
A lawman’s lawman
Siskiyou County lies in the heart of the would-be State of Jefferson, where many residents support seceding from California. A majority of the county voted to elect President Donald Trump. A majority also voted in favor of Proposition 64, which legalized the adult use of recreational marijuana in the state.
Lopey has been sheriff since 2010. He seems to fit his county’s fiercely independent streak.
High Country News, a magazine about the West, has labeled Lopey one of several “sagebrush sheriffs” critical of federal laws they believe impinge on the constitutional rights of farmers and hunters. He has spoken publicly about his beliefs, telling audiences “there is a movement to destroy real America as we know it.”
He previously belonged to the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, a political organization that believes the authority of local law enforcement should outweigh state and federal power. That group gained national attention when fellow member and former Sheriff Joe Arpaio from Maricopa County, Ariz., was found guilty of contempt of court for defying a court order to stop detaining suspected undocumented immigrants. In August, Trump pardoned him.
As he ate penne pasta at Mike & Tony’s restaurant in Mount Shasta one evening in October, Lopey was approached by about a dozen residents who wanted to shake his hand. Fit, with short salt-and-pepper hair and a tan, creased face, Lopey offered them a firm grip and warm, no-nonsense conversation.
Growing up in Reno and Vacaville, Lopey was steeped in war stories told by his dad, Merle, a World War II and Korean War veteran. The day he turned 18, he enlisted in the Marines. In three weeks, he was promoted to squad leader.
In 1974, he enrolled at Sacramento State. After graduation, he began his enforcement career with the Vacaville Police Department. Lopey joined the California Highway Patrol in 1977 and retired as assistant chief.
Lopey also spent 30 years in the United States Army Reserve and California Army National Guard, retiring as a colonel. He went to Iraq, trained high-ranking police officials in Haiti, Bosnia and Afghanistan; and served in the Philippines and Thailand.
Lopey has received numerous military awards, including a bronze star for valor in combat
He seldom takes time off, he said. “I’m a member of the First Baptist Church in Mount Shasta. If I didn’t pray every day I wouldn’t get through it.”
“He’s a lawman’s lawman – a man for our times,” said his friend and colleague Ed Pecis, a retired Special Agent in Charge of the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement.
‘The new Arpaio’
A federal lawsuit accused Lopey’s department of voter suppression and racially profiling Hmong farmers in September 2016. It called him “the new Arpaio.”
One of Lopey’s chief critics is Mouying Lee, a computer programmer and entrepreneur from Fresno who was among the first Hmong to arrive in Siskiyou County.
Lee, 43, said he moved here in July 2015 to try marijuana farming and to take advantage of relatively cheap land prices and easier building requirements.
Lee said he and others fell in love with Siskiyou County because its terrain reminded them of the mountains of Laos, where the Hmong lived and grew opium for generations. Lee can look behind his home home in Shasta Vista and see the range where he bought parcels and sold them to families who turned them into pot farms.
Not long after the Hmong growers arrived, the county passed regulations banning outdoor pot grows and mobile delivery of pot, and establishing fines for violations.
Lee started the 422 Council, an organization representing more than 300 pot growers. He said he felt the ordinances were unfair and didn’t represent the will of the public. He collected 2,400 signatures to put the measures to a vote on the June 2016 ballot.
“But as soon as we registered to vote by parcel, Lopey and the sheriff’s deputies and an investigator from the Secretary of State’s Office went property to property and said if Hmong people voted, they would go to jail because the parcels weren’t their residences,” Lee said.
Lopey denied any discrimination. He said he visited 39 properties during a voter fraud investigation initiated by the California Secretary of State, which had received reports that people who didn’t live in the county were registering using various parcels owned by pot growers. Lopey had been asked to accompany state voter registrar officials for safety reasons.
Several Hmong growers, including Lee, responded by filing a federal lawsuit with support from the ACLU in Sacramento against Lopey, Siskiyou County and the California Secretary of State. The suit claimed that “defendants create and continue to maintain a climate of fear, intimidation and racially motivated disenfranchisement and persecution, under the color of law. As a result, numerous Hmong were scared away from the voting booth, and Siskiyou County passed the two ordinances restricting marijuana use and cultivation.”
In September, U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez threw out the federal suit, ruling that there was no evidence.
Lopey has gone to great lengths to portray himself as a law-and-order sheriff, which makes the alleged attempt to bribe him seem even stranger.
According to court records, Chi Meng Yang visited the sheriff’s office in Yreka in May. Yang said he represented several pot-growing families who were “involved in a multistate commercial marijuana production effort and solicited the Sheriff’s support.”
Yang offered Lopey a $1 million bribe, according to an indictment filed in Sacramento federal court. Lopey contacted the FBI and began wearing a wire and recording his conversations with Yang and others.
The four-count indictment charged Yang, 31, and his sister Gaosheng Laitinen, 36, with conspiracy to commit bribery, bribery of a public official, conspiracy to manufacture marijuana and manufacturing marijuana. If convicted, they could be fined up to $15 million and sentenced to up to 40 years in prison.
Both Yang and Laitinen have pleaded not guilty.
The indictment details a series of meetings between Yang and the sheriff.
At a second meeting, Yang said he was growing marijuana for distribution in Missouri and he would pay Lopey $1 million once he received the profits. Yang told Lopey he wanted “protection” from others who might report him to law enforcement.
On June 13, Yang returned to give Lopey a $5,000 down payment and an additional $1,000 cash bonus, along with a handwritten list of five parcel numbers he wanted protected. But on June 28, Yang arrived at his pot farm as deputies pulled out 100 plants and seized dozens of pounds of pot, not counting the pound in Yang’s truck.
Yang called Lopey the next day to ask what happened. Lopey explained Yang’s parcel wasn’t one of the numbers Yang had given him to “protect.” Yang agreed, telling Lopey the deputies had taken 65 pounds of processed pot from his property and another from his car.
Yang asked Lopey to return his weed. Lopey refused. Yang and his sister showed up at Lopey’s office on July 4 to sweeten the deal, providing the sheriff with eight parcel numbers and street names this time, along with $3,500 in cash, according to the indictment.
Yang informed Lopey he planned to grow 100 plants in greenhouses and “urged the sheriff to expand the protection agreement to include 40 to 50 parcels the following year.”
Not long after, FBI agents arrested Yang and Laitinen. Their next court appearance is scheduled for Feb. 9.
Despite the nature of their encounters, Lopey said he grew fond of the accused. “I developed a relationship with (Yang). I trusted him and he trusted me, but the law is the law,” Lopey said. “It’s not a Hmong issue, it’s a crime issue. We are equal opportunity enforcers.”
Lopey respects the law, good public relations, and maintaining a good relationship with the community, even when they appear to be at odds. Elk Grove Mayor Steve Ly invited Lopey to attend a Hmong New Year event in Sacramento on Thanksgiving Day.
Lopey joined Ly and other Hmong leaders and was greeted warmly by a crowd of several thousand people. Lopey stood and saluted as a Hmong singer known as Lady Luna sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” After Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty praised Sacramento’s Hmong community, noting “there are 45,000 people of Hmong descent in our region, the second largest Hmong population in the country,” Lopey took the podium.
“Hmong history and culture is rich, and sustained a lot of challenges in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand,” he told the crowd. “As a member of the law enforcement community, I want to express the love and admiration I have for you.”
He added he would help to educate the Hmong about the law. He never mentioned marijuana.
Ly said Hmong pot growers have told him “the plantations up there are based on medical need, but every time they come into contact with authorities, the assumption is they’re doing it illegally.” Ly said he hopes to mediate between the sheriff and the pot growers. “If it’s illegal, it’s illegal,” he said. “This is something we really could resolve.”
He called the sheriff’s desire to develop “a strong relationship” with the Hmong community genuine.
Not everyone agrees. Lopey said Hmong in Siskiyou have told him, “We’re going to get so many people here, we’re going to vote you out of office.”
They may not have to. Lopey said he is on the fence about running for reelection next year.
“The job can be very stressful,” he said. “I leave my house and there’s a double homicide in Mount Shasta, a dead body over by Mount Shasta Resort, and near Happy Camp we found body parts consumed by a bear or mountain lion.”
He took a deep breath and exhaled. “This is the toughest job I’ve ever had.”