Cornbread Mafia book dives into local history and the origins of the syndicate

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By Jesse Osbourne

This story is the second of two parts about the upcoming book, “The Cornbread Mafia: A Homegrown Syndicate’s Code of Silence and the Biggest Marijuana Bust in American History.”

This part examines the material the author found in his reporting. Last week’s story looked at how the author got the story.

The origins of the Cornbread Mafia is something author Jim Higdon wanted to find out in the process of writing the book.
“The biggest marijuana syndicate in American history had to happen somewhere, it’s just a matter of scale,” Higdon said. “Why is it here? Why was it not headquartered in Vermont or California or some big city?”
Higdon said he looked into the origins using a cause and effect approach.
He went back as far as 1795, describing the foundation of Holy Cross, Ky. His account also includes the Gravel Switch bank robbery that John Dillinger pulled off in 1933.
“I guess the thesis of the book is that it comes from partly beginning with the Catholic foundations, the fact that it’s no coincidence that Holy Cross is founded by a distiller, and there was a still there before there was a church,” he said. “That’s sort of central to the whole thing. Prohibition didn’t help.”
Higdon also noticed a trend in the separation of “God’s Law” and “Man’s Law.”
“That one can break Man’s Law without violating God’s Law,” he said. “Which is a technique that the community uses to rationalize criminal behavior amongst members of its community without having the obligation to exile that member of the community.”
Often, those breaking the law were fully-functioning members of the community, he said.
“(They) took care of themselves and their neighbors, they just happened to be breaking the law,” he said. “In some cases, in superlative fashion.”
Prohibition was a wild time in Marion County, Higdon said.
Comparing headlines between the Lebanon Enterprise and the Springfield Sun from 1919 to 1933 (the duration of Prohibition) illustrated those wild times.
“Springfield Sun’s headlines from that period are ‘heart attack,’ ‘heart attack,’ ‘farm news,’ ‘heart attack,’ Higdon said. “And in the Lebanon Enterprise in the same period, it is ‘car chase,’ ‘car chase,’ ‘gun fight,’ ‘car chase.’”
Higdon said the headlines read like a comic book.
“Crazy. Totally off-the-chart crazy,” he said. “Things are happening that they’re talking about in Ken Burns’ “Prohibition” special and on “Boardwalk Empire” in the second season. Those things are happening in Marion County. In real life.”
Another factor was soldiers coming back from Vietnam with knowledge of what marijuana was worth and connections to big cities.
“All you had to do was grow it and not get caught,” Higdon said. “People had been not getting caught for two generations (through Prohibition) by then.”
The farm economy was collapsing at the time, as well as unemployment rates reaching nearly 20 percent in the 1980’s.
“You’ve got people willing to break the law, that breaking the law is not uncommon to them or out of their world-view,” he said. “And you’ve got the economic pressures that push them toward it.”
In short, those factors and more created a landscape conducive to a large-scale marijuana growing operation, a large-scale operation that would eventually peak and crash.
Higdon said that he found federal prosecutors were after Bobby Joe Shewmaker following a smuggling scheme conviction.
“They thought he was the top of the top, that he was just the big guy in Kentucky and all Kentucky marijuana went through him,” Higdon said. “Which was not true. That was the thought at the time.”
While a task force, which was new at the time according to Higdon, was assembling to combat the ‘Shewmaker organization,’ a large bust in Minnesota changed that thinking.
“Then, in October of ‘87, Johnny Boone’s big farm in Minnesota gets busted,” Higdon said.
The amount of marijuana recovered was the largest domestic bust in American history.
“It was like 90 tons of pot, which is just a rough estimate, because in the words of one of the investigators, the amount there was ‘inconceivable,” Higdon said.
Higdon said FBI documents indicated that the agency was keeping track of the operation over a few years, including an alphabetical list of farms involved.
The final tally included 10 states, 30 farms and 70 people arrested.
“Of those 70 people that they arrested, none of them talked in exchange for a lesser sentence,” Higdon said. “What they wanted to do was run a CCE prosecution, a continuous criminal enterprise prosecution, against the people they thought were the kingpins.”
The silence proved to be a blockade for a CCE prosecution, though.
“Because none of the 70 agreed to talk in exchange for a lesser sentence, they were unable to run a CCE prosecution against (Shewmaker or Johnny Boone), which would have resulted in life in prison without parole,” Higdon said.
Higdon said that he found a lot of answers as to how the syndicate got its name.
“People who were labeled with it, that is to say many of the people who were arrested, were unhappy with the term,” he said. “They thought that prosecutors came up with it, or that the media came up with it. Often the Courier-Journal gets blamed because that’s the first place it appeared in print.”
His reporting showed a different variation.
“My reporting, through the Freedom of Information Act, gets at FBI documents that show that at least the FBI is saying to itself or in the task force, the multi-agency task force, the FBI, DEA, IRS, state police, that it was a term that was being self-applied by members of the organization,” Higdon said.
Higdon said some of the people he’s talked to have disputed that.
“It’s one of those things that will forever be up in the air,” he said. “It’s a term that’s, you know, infamous more than anything, but it’s too catchy not to use.”
He said the phrase wasn’t used publicly until June 1989, when federal prosecutors used the phrase in a press conference in Louisville to describe the operation.
Higdon said he interviewed Washington County native Johnny Boone from 2007 until March of 2008.
“He’s in the book inside of quotation marks,” Higdon said.
Higdon said quotes are also used from Boone’s sentencing hearing in Minnesota in 1988.
“He speaks pretty eloquently to the judge about who (members of the organization) are, and they didn’t mean any harm, and they’re just good country people,” Higdon said.
The book is to be released on April 20, 2012.
Higdon said the book is available for pre-order online.
He’s been posting updates about the book at facebook.com/cornbreadmafia.