The raiding party, dressed in ninja black, gathered at two in the morning on November 18, 2005 outside a doublewide trailer on County Road 307 on the outskirts of Laytonville. The trick to raiding is knowing which rural residences are stash houses, and in this case, pretty much everyone in town knew about it. They knew what everyone in Mendocino County knows—that during harvest season, a rural residence might hold many pounds of sales-ready black market marijuana, worth thousands of dollars per pound, as well as large amounts of cash that banks wouldn't touch. Sharing that knowledge, the raiders ran over their plans and checked their weapons before making their move. In their excitement, they may have anticipated a million dollar haul.
Raids on rural Mendocino households have become pretty much scripted. The script reads, cannabis entrepreneur is busted during midnight's realm for growing copious quantities of illicit marijuana. Court proceedings follow. The only variation is in casting the entrepreneur--often a hippie.
In this case, the hippie was Leslie Charles Crane. Born in Norwich, Connecticut on February 4, 1966, Les was running his own tie-dye shop in Florida by his early thirties.
Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, was the California medical legalization of marijuana, allowing patients to grow up to six plants for medical use. Then, Mendocino County's Measure G, passed in 2000, mandated non-prosecution for patches up to 25 plants; later, that would be bumped to 99. Thus it was that Mendoland had the laxest marijuana laws in the nation. Les Crane took note.
In late 2001 or early 2002, he sold his tie-dye business and moved west. And per script, he became one of the influx of outsiders to Mendoland dubbed the “green rush” by the locals. In a Horatio Algerish touch, Les arrived in Laytonville with a hundred dollars and a pet dog.
In any community as small as Laytonville, every new resident is scrutinized, every individual becomes known. In a town where half the populace lives off growing an illicit plant, distrustful low key secrecy is the norm, with many folks practicing military grade operational security. Les flouted that low key approach; he became a flamboyant cannabis crusader and grower with Rastafarian tendencies. Naturally, some laid-back locals resented the commotion Les made; then too, his East Coast mannerisms sometimes grated on their California sensibilities. His espousement of legalizing marijuana was bound to irritate local law enforcement, and draw their attention.
As Les recruited medical marijuana patients into a cooperative while raising his crop, he prospered. Accumulating their doctor's recommendations required by Proposition 215 greatly multiplied the number of plants he could grow legally under the rules. He did well enough that he could afford to open a dispensary called Mendo Remedies on April Fool’s Day, 2004. He also did well enough that he could start plowing money back into the community. For instance, seeing latchkey kids with nothing to do after school, he sponsored a clean and sober after-school club for them.
Les became aware he was the target of a planned robbery in May 2005, and asked the Sheriff's office for protection from bandits. Deputies showed up, took a report, and returned with a search warrant on the 16th to bust him for cultivating excessive amounts of cannabis. He then sued to regain his pot and confiscated money, on the grounds that many of the co-op's medical marijuana permits were in process, and thus his crop was actually legitimate.
While those suits were pending, on June 6, 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that federal law enforcement could still prosecute pot growers despite state laws permitting medical marijuana. The ruling galvanized Mendo's cannabis community into some radical changes.
In response to the ruling, Les changed Mendo Remedies into a church named Mendo Spiritual Remedies. He had himself ordained in the Universal Life Church; some of his associates also became ordained in the Church. His medical marijuana clients became his congregation; their numbers grew to about 800. Though many nonaffiliated locals were suspicious of Reverend Crane's turn to piety, he preached a cannabis-centric doctrine for his church that included reference to scripture, and gave every evidence of sincerity.
At that time, Mendo Spiritual Remedies was not the county's only medical marijuana outlet; there was also a Ukiah dispensary that received notice they were subject to a federal bust. They closed shop. Some of their clients began the trek to Laytonville, to Mendo Spiritual Remedies, which hadn't received a raid notice.
The undaunted preacher promptly opened a church with adjacent “education center” in Ukiah. While it might have seemed prudent to tuck this away in some obscure cul-de-sac or business park, Les chose to site Hemp Plus just down Low Gap Road from the Sheriff's office, on State Street. Though he pledged to refrain from selling weed there, the impression given was an “in your face” challenge to law enforcement.
Then, not content with fending off his ongoing legal challenges, Reverend Crane went proactive and ran an ad in the July 13, 2005 Ukiah Daily Journal offering financial support for any locals fighting pot busts. Three days later, he was busted by the Highway Patrol for DUI.
On September 6, 2005, the Ukiah planning department sent a letter forbidding pot sales at his new location. The response was that his premises were clearly divided into church and shop, and that the planning department had no jurisdiction over a church. Membership in the Ukiah church was reportedly about 300.
A reporter on the controversy witnessed clients from as far away as Arkansas seeking cannabis remedies in the “educational center.”
Les's pot activism spread far beyond Mendocino County. He was party to a United Cannabis Ministries Amicus motion for legalization of marijuana presented to the Supreme Court on September 9, 2005. While attending a Bay Area rally for legalizing pot on October 25, he invited the United Cannabis Ministries Congress to come visit his Laytonville church/dispensary. At least 16 attendees took him up on his offer, and visited from the 26th through the 28th; some sources estimate as many as 30 visitors. Area 101, just north of Laytonville, served as the venue for the conference.
The local growers must have felt outraged by the intrusion. Nor would local law enforcement have taken kindly to the glare of national publicity. Especially when Les repeated his offer of financial backing for any attendees facing pot charges.
On November 2, 2005, Les was scheduled for a court appearance in Willits; on the 8th, he was arraigned on pot cultivation charges.
On the 16th, he laid out $7,000 for 350 Thanksgiving turkeys donated to the local food bank.
And then, in the gloomy feral hours of the 18th, the raiding party struck, out on County Road 307.
When the raiders smashed down Crane's trailer door on November 18, 2005, they charged in like a police SWAT team, with youthful screams of, “It's a raid.” Somehow they knew the trailer's layout. One raider charged into a bedroom where Sean “The Count” Dirlam awoke with a start, and began beating the startled 19 year old about the face and head. When Jennifer Drewry awoke in confusion and opened her bedroom door, she was clubbed on the face and arm with a baseball bat. Frozen with fear, she cradled her broken left arm and prayed for mercy. In response, a raider fired a shot at her, but missed.
The terrified victims were in the hands of a murderous home invasion gang of four to six masked thugs. While robbing the safe, they shot the unresisting 39-year old Les Crane at least five times, wounding him in the arm, head, and abdomen. They grabbed all the money in the safe, as well as the processed sales-ready marijuana. While they were doing this, “The Count” had managed to hide himself from them and secretively called 911 for help.
The raiders quickly fled with their loot. Response to the 911 call took only 15 minutes—pretty fast, considering the county's vast expanse and light policing. During the wait for help, Jennifer tried to comfort her dying fiancee. When she asked him who was responsible, he replied, “They came to see The Count today.” Then, as the authorities poured into the crime scene, the EMTs separated Jennifer from Les to begin treatment. Despite the medics' best efforts, Les Crane died of his wounds. His murder remains unresolved to this day.
And even before Les was removed to hospital, deputies began confiscating and removing unharvested marijuana from the premises.
This is not a case with no suspects; instead, it's a case of too many suspects. However, some things are known. The intruders knew the trailer's layout, and knew the cured cannabis and loose cash weren't kept in Les's business premises. Someone had tipped off the home invasion crew. That someone is the key to the case.
The difficulty is, there are so many possible someones.
There were 16 verified Congress of Ministry attendees, with an estimated total of 30. It's not clear how many of this group were invited out to his home. Nor is any internal dissension in the Congress known.
There are Les's associates; his operation was too large to run alone. They would know details of his growing. Was there a Judas among them?
Pretty much the entire population of Laytonville had to know Crane was in the marijuana trade; he made no secret of it. And when you're high profile, even with the best will and most charitable disposition, you can attract both known and unknown enemies sparked by envy and jealousy.
And there has even been suspicion of local law enforcers being fed up with Les's legal battles.
The burning question in this case then is, Who came to the farm to visit “The Count” on the day before the murder? And my intuition kicks in with, Given the timing of the raid, did at least some of the raiders sop up liquid courage nearby until 2 o'clock closing? Perhaps some regular in a local waterhole recalls something odd in the wayback…?
And of course, there is the old classic Cui bono… Who benefits from Les's death?
At any rate, the script didn't call for a murder mystery, but that's what Les Crane's murder has become.
Any information on this case may be shared with Sergeant Dustin Lorenzo of the Sheriff's Office, or with Cold Case Mendocino at 707-560-1543.