LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) - The former leader of the Cornbread Mafia in Kentucky has been arrested in Canada after eight years on the run. Johnny Robert Boone was picked up by police Thursday in a small town outside of Montreal on a Warrant from 2008. That warrant was for growing and distributing marijuana.
In the 1980s, he was accused of being a major marijuana dealer in Kentucky with a crime syndicate that stretched across the Midwest. Author of “The Cornbread Mafia” James Higdon grew up in Lebanon, Kentucky. The town essentially served as the headquarters for the Cornbread Mafia.
“The Cornbread Mafia is the story of the largest domestic marijuana syndicate in American history. Between 1985-1989, 70 men from Marion, Washington and Nelson County were arrested on 30 farms in 10 states with 200 tons of marijuana,” Higdon said. “Of the 70, nobody talked. It’s remarkable when you tell anyone in the law enforcement field or in the law-breaking field that 70 guys stuck together, people get impressed. Even the Sicilians can’t speak of a track record like that. It was very difficult for me to get these guys to open up to me even though I was from there, and it was 20 years in the past because that commitment to remain silent to protect other people besides themselves was very strong. The price they paid for that silence was significant and real, and that sacrifice that people like Johnny have made by keeping silent has really kept a lot of families and communities together. Individual men had to bear that responsibility by the federal time that came with that silence.”
Higdon said he became fascinated with the story from an early age.
“As kids in junior high and high school, realizing that what we were being told and what we were experiencing were opposite one another. Which do you believe? Do you believe that everyone who is involved in marijuana is a bad person, or do you believe that these people are good people who are involved in this thing that’s illegal? There’s this contradiction that is difficult for kids to understand,” Higdon said. “The community in Marion County really felt stepped on by the federal government by the way they went about prosecuting the Cornbread Mafia.”
Higdon worked for more than a year to get access to Johnny Boone. Higdon said that connection led to an unlikely, but invaluable partnership between the two men.
“It was really difficult. It took me 14 months of trying to get Johnny Boone on the record. He didn’t want to, and the only reason he decided to in the end was I had gone through the transcripts of all of his court proceedings and sentencing hearings. So, I knew more about his case than he cared for me to know. So, consequently, he realized that if I was going to write about this stuff, then he was going to guide my work,” Higdon said.
For about a year, the two would meet two to three times a week.
“It was really interesting, and I looked forward to going over to see him. What would happen is I would get documents in the mail from these open records requests, and I would bring them to Johnny. Then, Johnny would help me go through them,” Higdon said. “It was kind of a partnership we developed where he helped me understand the documents and the nature of the cat and mouse game that these guys were playing with law enforcement.
Higdon said Boone was getting seeds from people from India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Afghanistan and then cross-breeding them with local varieties to achieve certain results. Higdon said Boone would then clone those created breeds to be grown on various farms.
“That’s some real ingenuity into a science that’s essentially an underground science based on the fact that the plant he was working with was illegal. Johnny was somewhat of a natural leader and a genius horticulturist and a crew leader working farms at various places across the country,” Higdon said. “He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met, incredibly thoughtful, and he talked very slow and deliberately. He’s a remarkable person."
During their time together, Higdon said it became more and more clear why Boone did what he did, despite the consequences that came along with it.
“It’s his vocation. It was his calling. It was what he’s really good at. When you’re really good at something, that’s what you do,” Higdon said. “He’s sacrificed maybe more than he should for his passion. I’m sure that this certainly hasn’t turned out the way that he thought it would.”
They met for the last time on St. Patrick's Day in 2008.
“I was moving back to New York because I’d lost my book contract. I was going back to New York to try and find a new one. I went to his farm to tell him goodbye and that I’d be back to see him. I helped him unload a truck full of mulch into a flowerbed. Yeah, I remember it pretty well,” Higdon said.
Two months later, Johnny Boone went on the run after police caught him growing 2,000 marijuana seedlings on his farm. Eight years came and went with no sign of him until Thursday's arrest.
“He’s been a ghost, and now he’s sort of back from the dead. So, it’s a very strange, but interesting place that we find ourselves in,” Higdon said.
He was sitting at a matinee of the new Star Wars movie Thursday when the news came out of Boone’s arrest.
“I got out of the movie and turned my phone on and I have 15 text messages and 20 Facebook notifications,” Higdon said.
His capture marks the return of a mysterious man who Higdon described as an almost lovable legend to Marion County.
“A lot of people back home feel that it’s bittersweet. They would’ve preferred him to never be caught, but the opportunity to talk to him again is the silver lining in all of this,” Higdon said. “Since he’s been gone, these wave of legalization continues to sort of wash over the country. Had he been in California or Colorado, he might not be having this problem. Based on his zip code, he’s a fugitive or was a fugitive until yesterday.”
Higdon was the first journalist subpoenaed under the Obama administration in February 2009. He could’ve faced 18 months in prison for not talking.
“I refused to testify and fought it and managed to beat it about an hour before my grand jury appearance,” Higdon said. “As a journalist, having been trusted with information that was not going to be in the book, I wasn’t about to turn on my source.”
Higdon said he’s not sure yet if he wants to write another book or just add a final chapter to his first one. He said that’ll just depend on factors like the market interest and of course Boone’s willingness to talk again.
“As a journalist, going someplace where you don’t belong, asking questions that shouldn’t be asked to people who don’t want to tell you the answer, like that’s fun to me. I enjoy that,” Higdon said.