War and memory 

Police and prosecutors' abuse of asset forfeiture laws criticized

When I was coming up in Flint at the end of the 1950s and beginning of the '60s, I used to hang out at the legendary Sweetie's Barbershop in the city's north end. There my close pal Charles Leonard Boatwright Jr. — better known as Junebug — would be doing hair in the style then known as "fried, dyed and laid to the side."

I used to sit nodding out in a chair in the back, digging Gene Ammons 45s on the jukebox and listening to the cats talk, paying special attention when they would refer to some of the many, many things that were then well beyond my personal knowledge or experience.

What would really make my ears perk up was when someone's name would come up and one cat would say, "Oh, man, I been knowing him for 40 years." This was inconceivable to me: I was just 20 myself, and this figure represented twice my lifetime. It seemed impossibly far off, but now 50 years have passed and I say it all the time, especially this year, when I find myself celebrating the 40th anniversary of my release from prison and cringing at the 40th birthday of the War on Drugs. 

A story I read recently in the Drug War Chronicle took me back over those same 40 years to a law enforcement atrocity in Michigan that's been all but forgotten in the dreadful annals of the War on Drugs: the felony prosecution of a guy named Richard Songer for holding the Goose Lake rock festival on his property outside of Jackson in the summer of 1970. Police and prosecutors claimed the venue was meant to be a place where drugs could be sold and distributed.

Mark Deming commemorated the Goose Lake festival with a story in the Metro Times ("Goose Lake memories," July 2, 2008) that explained: "The Goose Lake festival was the brainchild of Richard Songer, a Southfield native who'd made a fortune in construction, building many of Michigan's highways, ramps and bridges. He purchased 350 acres near Goose Lake, just outside Jackson, and in 1970, Songer, then 35 years old, decided to transform the property into a park. He told the press: 'It's a dream of mine to put together some place for the young people to go.' 

"With that in mind, Songer planned to ... stage a series of concerts, starting with a three-day rock festival to take place Aug. 7-9." But the typically widespread ingestion of proscribed substances by festivalgoers triggered a police response that set off a veritable law enforcement conflagration culminating in Songer's prosecution as a narcotics felon.

Songer was indicted in October 1970 by the Jackson County Citizens Grand Jury and charged with aiding and abetting the sale of heroin and marijuana, and having heroin and marijuana under his control without a license. He was found not guilty by a jury in December 1971 after undergoing a brutal felony prosecution that, under 1971 statutes, would have resulted in a mandatory minimum 20-year sentence upon conviction.

It was horrifying at the time to contemplate the persecution of Songer for attempting to create an alternative concert venue, and I remember breathing a big sigh of relief on his behalf when he was acquitted right around the time I got out of prison myself.

Forty years later, it is even more horrifying to witness a similar orgy of law enforcement zeal directed at a dread-locked bass player named Jimmy Tebeau, a member of the Grateful Dead tribute band, the Schwag; Tebeau established Camp Zoe in rural Missouri* in 2004 as a camping and concert venue that has hosted numerous Schwagstock and Spookstock festivals, as well as other events drawing thousands of fans for weekends of outdoor fun in the sun.

Eapen Thampy, executive director of Americans for Forfeiture Reform*, has been updating me with a steady stream of information about the atrocity in Arkansas, which came to light last November when the DEA and the Missouri Highway Patrol invaded Camp Zoe early in the morning and, a week later, announced that they were initiating federal civil asset forfeiture proceedings against the property because of alleged rampant drug use and Tebeau's failure to put a halt to it.

According to Drug War Chronicle reporter Phillip Smith, the complaint alleged that "over the past several years, law enforcement agents have specifically observed the open sales of cocaine, marijuana, LSD (acid), ecstasy, psilocybin mushrooms, opium and marijuana-laced food products by individuals attending the music festival and made multiple undercover purchases of illegal drugs."

The complaint further alleged that Tebeau and other Camp Zoe staff members "were in the immediate area" when drug deals were going down and "took no immediate action to prevent the activity." It added that "undercover purchases have been made as recently as September 2010," but noted that the investigation stretched back to 2006 and included evidence from "surveillance, undercover operations, source information, bank records and interviews."

Most critically, Smith reports, the complaint alleges that Camp Zoe was "knowingly opened, rented, leased, used or maintained for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing or using controlled substances." In other words, as Smith suggests, "the feds are arguing that the purpose of Camp Zoe was not to be a concert venue, but a drug den, and it could thus be lawfully seized, along with nearly $200,000 in cash they seized from the site and various bank accounts.

"But wait, it's even worse," Smith adds. "After stalling the asset forfeiture proceedings for seven months ... and seeing that Tebeau was not about to roll over for them, federal prosecutors got a criminal indictment charging that Tebeau 'knowingly and intentionally profited from and made available for use, with or without compensation, said place for the purpose of unlawfully storing, distributing, or using controlled substances.'"

"This is the sort of thing Soviet thugs did and that continues to happen in Russia under Vladimir Putin," Eapen Thampy told Smith. "They take a businessman, take his money, and take him to jail. I see this as an attempt by rich and powerful law enforcement agencies to acquire property or money they can turn into salaries or equipment."

Smith points out that Missouri law enforcement agencies profit handsomely from asset forfeiture, especially when they partner with the feds. "By law, funds seized by state and local law enforcement agencies are supposed to go to the state education fund. But in 2000, and every year since, schools have gotten 2 percent, with that figure dropping to 1 percent in 2008 and 2009. Meanwhile the Justice Department and state and local cops have raked in millions of dollars, gobbling up the vast majority of funds that were supposed to go to Missouri's schools."

"That charge [against Tebeau] is complete bullshit," Thampy adds. "If they wanted to charge him with drug trafficking or drug possession, those would be appropriate charges if they could prove them. But charging him with running a drug premise says that he got this land for the sole purpose of conducting drug transactions. It would be putting it mildly to say this is an abuse of prosecutorial power."

Fellow Americans, how long will we put up with these abuses? They're conducting this piratical activity in our names, and it's been going this way for 40 years. Richard Songer beat his case in the end, and we must pray that Jimmy Tebeau is equally vindicated. Stop the War on Drugs!

 *Errata - The originally posted version of this article misidentified the state as Arkansas and Eapen Thampy as an attorney.

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