Prisons, snitches and graveyards
How much collateral damage will we suffer
before we put an end to the war on drugs?
Editorial Comment by Nora Callahan, Executive Director
Barter Faires, spring
and autumn celebrations, sometimes called "gatherings"
by counter-culture residents of Northeastern Washington seasonally
dot our isolated valleys. People trade "homespun",
canning, crafts, old and new clothing, for handmade candles,
a winter's supply of squash, keeping the dreams of simple and
productive lives alive, and an earth less spoiled by their having
lived upon it. And yes, sometimes marijuana and other illegal
substances are traded. Only in that regard is it like any other
gathering of people -a barter faire is quite unique.
Attracting thousands of people, the faires foster old friendships
- one circle of friends take in another, and new friendships
root. A lot of folks come to watch the process, voyeurs enjoying
the "vibe". The faires last for days at a time, sometimes
weeks; the police rarely needed, rarely summoned, but present
nonetheless. In the past - in the form of undercover agents but
today more commonly with former friends who have "turned",
"rolled over" and become "informants" and
"snitches" - such police 'friends' set up drug buys,
and set off signals to police. Agents blaze into the peaceful
valley of encampments. In 4 x 4s careening down hillsides, filling
rutted, narrow roads, they make high profile, noisy arrests,
leaving behind shrouds of dust, and each year rising levels of
resentment and disgust.
Besides a rolling thunderstorm or two, raid-like arrests are
usually the only thing that shatters the peace of one of Stevens'
or neighboring Ferry County's barter faires. And the mood's gloomy
after they've hauled off a "brother" or "sister"
for a small marijuana, LSD or mushroom sale. Later, after the
"rolling over" - an ounce turns into kilos, and mere
possession becomes a tangled conspiracy. A conspiracy charge
and prison sentence isn't necessarily based on the drugs a person
has in his or her possession, but often large amounts that others
might have, or a guess at how much might have been involved -
a guess that is made by a law enforcement agent. The only way
out is to become a "snitch".
Our community's counterculture survives in a drug-war-zone few
give notice to, and as night falls around a hundred campfires
and before a backdrop of night-blackened hills, forest and drum
sounds, there is talk about the war on the people who choose
homegrown bud over the corporate Bud. People are suspicious and
afraid that the drug war, not unlike other distinct communities
of people, has targeted them long, and targeted them hard. Around
those campfires people agonize over the "snitch culture",
exhorting the young to avoid betrayal while one by one elders
succumb to a prosecutor's demand when they're busted, or they
get hauled off to prison. The youth of this counterculture cannot
remember "better days" because for them there's always
been a drug war - and those that weren't home-schooled learned
to "snitch" in DARE class.
Marijuana became the number one cash crop in our county when
the drug war heated up twenty to thirty years ago, and today,
mostly due to the underground market that prohibition fuels,
it's a commodity worth more than gold. Yet we expect people not
to trade in such products, even after science judges them "benign"
as mood altering substances go. We call any human culture that
chooses the Herb over Prozac a "Drug Culture"
and add to that perplexity the burden of perhaps becoming a "Snitch"
culture. And snitch culture has begun to take hold in every community
exposed daily to the rewarding of betrayal, and resultant violence
shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.
It's beginning to take a hold in our Colville area now. We experienced
a grisly double murder last spring. While local and national
newspapers called them "drug-ring" murders, the murders
had less to do with drugs, and more about this "snitching"
business into which police pull our citizens.
Joshua Schaefer and Nick Kaiser laid plans last spring, traveled
from their respective homes in Western Washington and Oakland,
California to the barter faire north of Colville. Not long after
their arrival - they disappeared. They were never entirely found,
wild animals having discovered their shot-dead, charred remains
inside a Ford Bronco before people did.
Barter Faire 'regulars', Kaiser and Schaefer, previously unknown
to each other, had both been arrested before, and rather than
face decades in prison, each had become an informant for the
police. If they had chosen prison, they'd still be alive today-locked
up with violent criminals for their nonviolent offenses. Nick
would have been looking at a release date of no sooner than 2025
if Steven's County prosecutor Jerry Wetle is correct in his assessment
of Kaiser as the "LSD man on the West Coast. The boss of
Seattle." Wetle also claims that Joshua Schaefer was associated
with what police described as "Rainbow Family drug rings."
The avocation of a snitch is hard to keep secret, and while we
do not know the details, John Grange of Portland, Oregon may
have been caught in the same trap as Nick, and now Joshua - turn
informant or spend most of the rest of your life in prison. He'd
heard the rumors that Joshua and Nick had become informants.
You won't find many naïve "hippies" in our community
- young or old. And they are trying their best not to succumb
and betray those that they have been taught to love, those who
time and again have shared their last five dollars, or gave them
a room for a summer at no cost. But it's a David vs. Goliath
struggle, this system of set-ups and betrayal-or prison. Court
documents show that John Grange both advised Nick that he was
in danger, and advised people of the danger of befriending Nick.
John Grange executed his friends, or so the guilty verdict rendered.
He enlisted the help of two local men to help him dispose of
the bodies. A gloomy mug shot of a tall and thick young man,
with his given and nickname "Chewy" spelled "Chooey"
ran often in our local newspapers, and I hoped others remembered
that "Chewy" is short for Chewbacca, the name of the
large, but sweet sidekick of Star War's hero Hans Solo. Wondering
if others would make that connection, and see that we were looking
at a mug shot of an intense young man who had garnered the large,
gentle nickname when he was a boy.
It is only after John Grange's conviction that we read that the
prosecutor admitted to the jury the witnesses against Grange
weren't "the best", had "minimized their own involvement,"
and the only testimony that remained consistent, was what Wetle
described as "the big picture." But what exactly is
the "big picture"? Dan Williams and Jeffery Cunningham
- local men who claim they were witnesses nearby when John Grange
shot Joshua and Nick - had helped burn the bodies. They are expected
to do a year in prison for that. That is how they were able to
get murder charges against them dropped. They testified against
John. Grange told the court he was a working man who enjoyed
smoking marijuana, and that he was stranded at the barter faire
after loaning his '87 Bronco to Dan Williams. The prosecutor
also admits that the testimony of Williams and Cunningham was
"necessary to convict Grange" because there wasn't
any physical evidence that Grange executed his friends-turned-informers.
Joshua, Nick and John were barely out of their teenage years.
Remember how smart everyone was just out of our teens? Most of
us had, at best, a high school education and a minimum wage job,
and according to statistics, about a third of us were buying
and using illegal drugs.
Our drug laws, and the tactics used to enforce them, are what
more and more people will say are insane, but John Grange could
not plead insanity. If he had been set up, and committed these
murders, he can't claim self-defense. Drug law violations often
'carry more time' than most violent crime convictions, even the
most violent of crimes like rape and murder. And some of us once
thought the drug war was supposed to be protecting our children.
Selective prosecutions of the drug war and the use of informants
has spawned a snitch culture that has devastated Black and Hispanic
communities for decades. The drug war violence in these communities
is proof enough that the war leaves immeasurable collateral damage,
while illegal drugs continue to proliferate measurably. Those
are clear signs that the drug war is doing more harm than illegal
drugs do. We ought to be changing course, not escalating present
tactics. That is still not the trend however, and we all should
Our economically depressed community has lost too many citizens
to prisons, lots of good people who did nothing more than grow
and sell marijuana. These nonviolent people paradoxically do
more time than violent criminals. The "snitches" have
coffee in the cafes and drink beer in the bars. People know who
they are. It's the way it is around here.
Or the way it was. Perhaps soon, before there are more scattered
human remains, our own community will begin to access and address
the collateral damage of the war on drugs and ask this important
question- is the drug war really protecting our youth? If current
police and prosecutorial tactics that reward betrayal and fill
our prisons and graveyards hasn't made a dent in drug availabilty
after more than 30 intense years of waging it, then when will
it? Never. It's time to stop the war on drugs.