Two decades ago, on a rice farm seemingly lost beyond the cattails and wild blackberries of rural Sutter County, Thomas and David Jopson took an audacious risk.
The fourth-generation farmers, sons of the local fire chief, erected a row of greenhouses. With innovation and hard work, they earned a national reputation for producing premium tomatoes that retailed for more than $4 a pound.
Now the brothers may face 10 years in federal prison after they undertook an even more ambitious project – growing pot.
Thomas Jopson, 62, and David, 60, were indicted this week along with 10 other people after authorities seized 2,168 marijuana plants at the family ranch June 21. Another 3,305 plants were found at a Sacramento County greenhouse allegedly tied to the brothers' purported partner – Oakland medical marijuana entrepreneur Yan Ebyam.
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Ebyam, 34, whose last name is "maybe" spelled backward and whose first name stands for "yes and no," once ran a teeming pot-growing operation that proved even too brazen for Oakland, the city renowned as the political center of California's medical marijuana movement.
The urban pot grower would later seek out the two Sutter County brothers just as they were looking to retire after a weak economy hurt supermarket demand for their designer produce.
Thomas Jopson's attorney, Michael Chastaine, said the brothers wanted to sell the farm and its greenhouses "because the market for good tomatoes just kind of bottomed." He said the Oakland man pitched what the brothers saw as a legal money-making opportunity.
"My client honestly felt that what they were doing was complying with the law," Chastaine said. "He certainly wasn't acting in any way as someone who felt that what they were doing was illegal."
Ebyam's attorney, Assistant Federal Defender Matthew M. Scoble, declined comment.
An affidavit by a U.S. Drug Enforcement agent suggested the Jopsons apparently felt so safe about the pot-growing operation under California's medical marijuana law that they invited a sheriff's deputy to tour their greenhouses. They even inquired about getting increased patrols.
DEA agent Robert Marchi said Thomas Jopson told the Sutter deputy they hoped to harvest six annual marijuana crops worth $24 million. David Jopson gave a more modest estimate of $8 million from four grow cycles – with the brothers collecting four $150,000 payments a year.
"Dave Jopson stated he and his brother were expecting to make enough money from the cultivation of marijuana to lead the good life" in retirement, Marchi wrote.
Pushed limits in Oakland
In agricultural circles, the farmers earned such acclaim with tomatoes they were profiled in trade publications for their bold hydroponics venture.
"Tom Jopson has no regrets about becoming a greenhouse grower, and wishes anyone who makes a similar move all the success in the world," said a 2008 story in American Vegetable Grower magazine. "But he has some words of warning. It's not for the faint of heart."
Apparently for the Jopsons, and their partner, Ebyan, neither was marijuana.
A fast-talking businessman in his early 30s, Ebyan was a phenomenon in Oakland.
He had served prison time for money laundering in the sale of $6 million in stolen Cisco and Sun Microsystems computer equipment. And yet he helped create what city officials once thought was a model for large-scale medical marijuana cultivation.
In a warehouse in east Oakland, Ebyam and his associates spent $500,000 on lighting and electrical upgrades to outfit a 40,000-square-foot marijuana cultivation center.
Ebyam then signed a headline-grabbing contract with the Teamsters, paying unionized pot workers $25-an-hour, plus benefits. He supplied product to medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
"The scale and scope of that activity was aggressively pushing state and local law to the limit," said Oakland attorney James Anthony, who represents medical marijuana enterprises. "But it was what Oakland was contemplating."
The city was planning to issue four permits for massive marijuana cultivation warehouses, and levying a tax of of up to 10 percent on sales.
Oakland's plans collapsed after California voters last year rejected Proposition 19, the initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and federal authorities said they wouldn't tolerate large-scale medical pot growing either.
Later, Oakland refused to grant Ebyam the final building permits to sustain his cannabis venture. It went out of business, and he wound up in litigation with his partners – and looking for new chances.
Brothers' friend stunned
In the Sutter hamlet of Rio Oso, James Barker, a family friend of the Jopsons, who runs the East Nicolaus Market a few miles from their farm, said the brothers told him they were out of the tomato business and working on a "research and development" project.
Barker thought they were using their greenhouse for genetic crop engineering, not growing marijuana.
"They are respected, upstanding people in this community," he said. "They were misled by somebody who had to have been manipulating them . I've just been sick about this ever since."
While marijuana is illegal under federal law, Mike Hudson, commander of a Yuba and Sutter county narcotics task force, said the pot farm didn't appear to follow state medical marijuana law. The state allows medicinal cannabis users to grow and share their crops in closed networks of marijuana patients.
"I'm only assuming they were going to provide it to dispensaries somewhere," Hudson said of the Jopsons' pot operation. "They claimed they had a list of patients. However, we did not see that."
Chastaine said Thomas Jopson had no reason "to go out and break the law." He said the brothers, who leased their greenhouses but didn't grow the marijuana, wouldn't have risked farm property worth millions of dollars unless they thought it was legal.
According to the federal affidavit, an alleged investor in the project, Aimee Sisco, 30, told authorities she was taken advantage of by Ebyam. She said he moved healthy marijuana plants to greenhouses in Sacramento County, leaving her with hundreds of plants on the Jopson farm that had to be destroyed due to mold.
The Jopsons, who were arrested June 21, are free after posting bonds of $100,000. With Ebyam, Sisco and eight others, they face federal charges of conspiracy and manufacturing at least 1,000 marijuana plants – a number that can trigger 10 years in prison.
In Sutter County, rancher Jess Schrum said he figured the Jopsons had a "sweet deal" selling designer tomatoes and wondered why they would contemplate marijuana. The locals "never would have expected anything like this," he said. "It's just weird. That's all I can say."