Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Adirondacks: Gateway for Quebec Hydroponic Marijuana

Quebec, with its cheap hydropower and proximity to a porous section of the U.S. border, produces massive amounts of warehouse-grown high-THC marijuana.

A billion dollars worth of this weed funnels through Clinton, Franklin, and St. Lawrence counties annually, according to Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne. A look at the map is all it takes to see that much of it travels through the Adirondack Park on its way to Albany, New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and as far south as Florida.

Adirondackers are mostly oblivious to this traffic, with its high stakes and organized crime, including the Russian mob, Irish mob and Hell’s Angels. But the lure of big money has attracted some North Country residents to sideline in the business, including a store owner/construction contractor from St. Regis Falls, law enforcement officials said Wednesday.

Every other week for at least the past two years, a hundred or so pounds of marijuana valued at around $500,000 per shipment would leave northern New York and be transported by car to Cleveland, Ohio, authorities say. At first, police in the Cleveland area identified Daniel Simonds, a 31-year-old resident of Stockholm, in St. Lawrence County, as the deliveryman. But then Simonds was shot and killed in his home a year ago.

Investigators continued to watch Cleveland drug-ring suspects believed to have connections with the Russian mob. They got in touch with North Country law enforcement, confirming that shipments were still coming from this region, specifically from Franklin County. Police would not give details on their surveillance methods, but they say that suppliers from Cleveland would rent a car every other weekend and drive to their pick-up spot, a rustic camp on the St. Regis River in St. Regis Falls belonging to Harold Fraser, a 43-year-old St. Regis Falls resident who also owns the Hill Top Stop market and construction business in that Adirondack hamlet and whose arrest on drug possession charges was announced Wednesday.

The Cleveland drivers would wait at Fraser’s camp for a shipment of Quebec marijuana, which would cross the Canadian border via several entry points, but usually through the Akwesasne Reservation, according to David Leu, the Drug Enforcement Agency’s resident agent in charge for Northern New York. Jurisdictional ambiguities inside Mohawk nation land, which straddles the U.S.-Canada border on the St. Lawrence River, have fostered a smuggling economy. After a few hours at the St. Regis Falls camp, the drivers would receive the hydroponic, hand over the cash (hidden inside a computer hard-drive shell in at least one instance) and be on their way back to Cleveland, sometimes supplying other areas in New York State and the Northeast, Champagne says.

“In this case, in a one-year period, in excess of 18 loads were confirmed between Franklin County and Ohio with the average load having a street value in excess of $500,000. The organization has been operating in excess of 2-3 years allowing for an approximate street value of 18 to 27 million dollars during the known period of operation,” a press release states.

Eight operators described as “mid-level” have been arrested, five in Northern New York and three in Ohio so far. Leu says, “There are definitely going to be other arrests.” St. Lawrence County District Attorney Nicole Duve says the drug network is linked to the killing of Daniel Simonds but she would not elaborate because an investigation is ongoing. She says seven defendants are under indictment in the homicide case, two of them in Canada, and one remains at large.

The arrests resulted from search warrants executed June 15 in Cleveland and at three North Country residences and at the Hill Top Stop. Police would not comment on the convenience store’s role in the case. The warrants netted $1.3 million in cash as well as a pound of cocaine and another $700,000 in assets, including 14 vehicles, two utility trailers, three ATVs, a snowmobile and a boat. Leu says any day police take $1.3 million in cash out of the illegal-drug loop is a good day, and he expects the money to support further North Country drug interdiction efforts.

Champagne says marijuana-importing networks on this scale are not unusual in the North Country anymore. “Unfortunately we know a dozen groups that move that kind of volume,” he says.

Photo: The St. Regis Falls camp where marijuana transfers allegedly took place – the photo was supplied by law enforcement officials. To see more of their photos click here.

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Mary Thill

Mary Thill lives in Saranac Lake and has worked alternately in journalism and Adirondack conservation for three decades.




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