Over the weekend there was a lengthy wire story that appeared in a lot of newspapers across the country about a “Robin Hood” of a character named Johnny Boone, who is every bit as famous for growing marijuana in central Kentucky as the late "Popcorn" Sutton was for making copious amounts of moonshine in upper east Tennessee and around Maggie Valley in North Carolina.
John Robert Boone, also known as "the King of Pot," has been on the run for the last two years after the Feds found 2,400 plants on his Kentucky farm, and it isn't much of a stretch to draw a fun parallel between him and ole “Popcorn,” a delightful "distiller" who always wore bib overalls before he finally committed suicide in mid-March last year rather than return to federal prison.
Johnny Boone's rather infamous farm is a 250-acre spread located in the geographical center of Kentucky, down near Springfield. It’s about 60-odd miles south of Louisville, if that helps, and is in Marion County, which is named for America's famous "Swamp Fox," Francis Marion.
But the better truth is there has never been a greater fox than Boone himself, who is said to be able to disappear "like a whiff of smoke" and has since foiled repeated attempts by DEA and FBI agents to haul him in.
Johnny, last seen wearing a full Santa-like beard, has always been a colorful character, as many of those who farm corn and legal tobacco in central Kentucky can be, but he got caught in the spotlight back in 1987 when federal agents swooped down on a farm in Minnesota and found him with 45 tons of fresh-harvested pot.
According to a profile posted on the "America's Most Wanted" website, the initial discovery of the huge cache of marijuana opened a proverbial floodgate of those growing massive amounts of “herbs” that contain a mind-numbing substance called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Marijuana has been around for a real long time, but with the Vietnam conflict in the ‘60s and the hippies’ surge for self-expression, America was quick to develop quite a taste for pot. It's now in the news every day. A recent vote to legalize it in California just failed, but you can now find it just about anywhere. (For the record, my acquaintances tell me the current market price on Chattanooga streets is roughly $120 for an honest ounce.)
But back to the story: In 1987 agents soon discovered a vast network of marijuana growers at 29 different farms in nine different states and, within weeks, the startled lawmen had seized 182 tons of pot - which had a street value of $400 million at the time - and made 70 arrests.
Interestingly, those caught were all from Kentucky and most were from Marion County, a group the Feds immediately dubbed “The Marion County Marijuana Cooperative.”
John Boone, who was so skilled at farming the weed he would actually divide the male and female plants for a better yield, was heralded as the "Godfather of Grass", and he was sentenced to 20 years. During the next 13 years he was behind bars, he spent several at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., and it was there he learned about "Omerta," which is the code the Mafia uses that originated in Sicily. Word even has it Johnny has a huge “omerta” tattooed across the width of his broad shoulders.
As a matter of fact, the U.S. marshals have a document of the declaration alleged to have been written in Boone's own hand, describing the Sicilian ideals: "To never rat on anyone; To never harm another person, except in defense; To protect women and children and helpless; To always have a clear view of right and wrong; To do right without reserve.”
And, brother, that is where the story gets better. Johnny’s band is still called “The Cornbread Mafia.”
You see, the reason John Boone hasn't gotten caught is because no one in the Commonwealth will rat him out. The federal marshals say that everybody respects him too much and nary a soul will even speak to those thought to be lawmen. The regional belief is that he hasn't committed any crimes that are wrong as far as God is concerned. He’s regarded as an “outlaw,” not a criminal, and he’s helped hundreds in the economically-depressed area.
At his trial in 1988 Boone even told the judge and jury, "With the poverty at home, marijuana is sometimes one of the things that puts bread on the table." He also said, "We were working with our hands on earth God gave us."
Not long ago, a friend told an Associated Press reporter, "He's just a good ol' country boy, a farmer. He's not robbing banks or nothing."
And a guy named James Cecil, who once spent time with Johnny in the "hoosegow," was more succinct. "Even if I knew where he was, I wouldn't tell you," he said.
Cecil told how, when he was finally “sprung from the joint,” Johnny bankrolled him until he got back on his feet “and never asked me to pay him back.” There are many such stories that accompany Cecil’s tale and, while Johnny Boone is crafty, he’s widely-acknowledged by the locals as having a big heart.
The federal marshals have a different version. They tell about rattlesnakes that have been tied to stakes near the edge of pot fields to await “revenuers,” about vicious dogs whose “bark” has been surgically-removed that attack in the night, and bleached (cow) bones that are scattered all about as a silent warning for agents.
I’m telling you, the legend of Johnny Boone is a tantalizing tale indeed.
If and when the law finally catches Johnny, he’s nearly assured of spending the rest of his life in prison, but, until he’s apprehended, the legend and the lore is a page of life richer than Kentucky tobacco soil. "That's all he's ever done, raised pot," said another longtime friend, adding slowly, "He never hurt nobody."