Derek Worden, president of South Coast Safe Access collective. (Sam Gangwer, The Orange County Register)

Orange County MMJ dispensary partners’ legal battle includes bikers, attempted hit, drug rings, harassment

South Coast Safe Access in Santa Ana remains open, even as its owners are locked in a vicious battle in the courthouse

The allegations include a murder attempt, sexual harassment, tax evasion and an interstate drug ring run by minors and a biker gang.

And they pour out from lawsuits filed by feuding owners of Orange County’s first legal medical marijuana dispensary.

South Coast Safe Access in Santa Ana remains open, serving hundreds of medical marijuana patients, even as its owners are locked in a vicious battle in the downtown county courthouse.

Under SCSA Group, Inc., a California nonprofit mutual benefit corporation, CEO David DeWyke filed the first lawsuit in February, claiming his business partner, Derek Worden, sexually harassed employees, skimmed funds from the shop and quietly helped run an illicit marijuana business on the side.

Worden denied those claims and filed his own lawsuit this month against DeWyke and his wife, Johnnie DeWyke. His suit accuses the couple of illegally distributing drugs, tax evasion and more. It also offers up a theory on the unsolved mystery of who’s responsible for the high-profile shooting of Worden in the parking lot of South Coast Safe Access three months after the shop opened.

The dueling legal actions offer a bitter, and at times sensational, behind-the-scenes portrayal of business dealings at a pioneering dispensary as it sought to establish itself in the competitive and controversial emerging legal cannabis market.

Santa Ana residents voted in November 2014 to permit up to 20 medical marijuana dispensaries that would be regulated and taxed. The city held a lottery in February 2015 to allot chances to apply, and DeWyke and Worden both paid to enter.

DeWyke’s lawsuit says the men agreed if either of them were chosen in the lottery, the other would be brought in “to help” with the shop. Worden’s suit counters that the two agreed to be business partners and equally share profits from a cannabis dispensary and management firm.

One of DeWyke’s lottery balls was chosen, his lawsuit says. Together, the men invested the funds to get permits, cover construction and open South Coast Safe Access on Warner Avenue in August 2015, according to Worden’s suit.

From early 2015 through February 2017, Worden said he and DeWyke received weekly salaries, plus evenly split management fees. But Worden asserts in his lawsuit that trouble between the two started in dramatic fashion one afternoon in November 2015, when Worden was shot multiple times by a stranger while getting in his car in the dispensary parking lot.

One shot grazed his shoulder, according to Worden. He said he ducked and two more shots hit the headrest. Then, as the shop’s security guard ran to the parking lot, a final shot hit Worden in the abdomen. The assailant fled on foot, and Worden spent more than two weeks in intensive care.

The Santa Ana Police Department is continuing an investigation, which has produced no suspects despite the offer of a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of the suspect. Worden’s lawsuit says detectives have described the attack “as a ‘likely’ hit on Worden,” partly because surveillance video shows the shooter waited for Worden to exit the dispensary and didn’t attempt to steal anything.

“We believe he was the intended target,” Santa Ana police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said. “This is an open and ongoing investigation and detectives are in contact with all parties involved.”

Worden’s lawsuit claims the DeWykes’ “conduct and threats of violence against Worden since that time give Worden reason to believe that the DeWykes have information relating to the shooting and they may be responsible for the attack.”

Mark Kearney, a partner in the Irvine-based law firm MK Smith representing SCSA Group, Inc. in DeWyke’s lawsuit, said the two men talked about who the shooter could have been.

“It was a long list because Derek Worden has a lot of enemies,” Kearney said. “At no point of time did DeWyke have any direct knowledge of who did that.”

Worden’s suit also claims the DeWykes used the Mongols Motorcyle Club “as agents to silence Worden and others through intimidation and threats of harm.”

That allegation is “a lie by Worden,” said Jason K. Smith, another partner at MK Smith.

“There is no evidence that there’s an affiliation with the Mongols Motorcycle Club or that they were used in any manner,” Smith said.

Bertagna said detectives have interviewed both parties involved and the investigation is ongoing.

“We are aware of the allegations being made by (both) the parties involved and the detectives are looking into the criminal allegations,” Bertagna said. “As in any investigation we do, if any of the allegations are substantiated, we will submit the case to the (District Attorney) for review and filing consideration.”

Worden’s lawsuit claims that, after recovering for several months from the shooting, he returned to the dispensary to discover the shop was out of compliance with state and local laws and that “they were using the business as part of a larger criminal enterprise.”

Worden’s suit alleges DeWyke was giving minors access to the shop’s marijuana products, that income wasn’t being properly reported and the business was distributing cannabis throughout California and Nevada using minors and Mongols members. The suit also alleges employees were allowed to drink alcohol on the job, carry weapons and sell cocaine.

Worden’s suit is “just filled with lies,” Kearney said.

The suit filed by DeWyke on behalf of the collective raises a host of allegations against Worden. It claims Worden took shipments from vendors, inaccurately recorded higher costs to the shop and pocketed the difference. The suit also claims Worden put the Santa Ana shop’s permit at risk by having an ownership interest in an illegal Irvine marijuana concentrates extraction facility that was raided by police.

DeWyke’s suit also cites 10 complaints of workplace harassment filed with the shop’s union that allege Worden frequently commented on female employees’ figures and touched one worker inappropriately, claiming it was an accident. And the suit says he made jokes about employees’ race and sexual orientation.

In an interview, Worden said the allegations in DeWyke’s lawsuit are false, arguing that 32 security cameras would have captured any inappropriate behavior.

“It’s just smoke and mirrors to not pay me,” he said, insisting DeWyke has cut him off from the business entirely since February 2017.

DeWyke obtained a court injunction against Worden, barring him from South Coast Safe Access premises and employees, “based on his ongoing unlawful conduct and harassment of witnesses,” Kearney said.

“He was essentially a danger to the company and he was putting the company and employees at risk,” Kearney said.

DeWyke is seeking unspecified damages, claiming Worden spread false information about the shop and has interfered in business deals, he said in court filings. He’s now considering filing a defamation lawsuit based on Worden’s circulation of what he maintains are grossly false allegations in the August complaint.

Worden was sentenced to four years in prison following a 1992 felony charge of selling drugs and received probation for a 2004 battery conviction, court records show, plus had a domestic violence restraining order in 2002.

“I’ve made a big change since then,” Worden said, insisting he’s now focused on his faith and being a father. “You grow up and you become wiser and you look at life differently.”

Worden is asking for more than $1 million in damages, plus access to once again help run and profit from the business.

South Coast Safe Access is among 16 licensed medical marijuana dispensaries operating in Santa Ana. Shop owners recently successfully petitioned the city council to loosen some rules, letting them stay open later and removing limits on the amount of cash they can have on hand.

Santa Ana is still the only city in Orange County that permits dispensaries. As other cities consider regulating marijuana shops, DeWyke said he hopes the issues the first licensed dispensary faces won’t tarnish the image of his shop or the industry.

“This is not how the industry should be portrayed,” he said.

The lawsuits could be consolidated by the court, Kearney said, but no trial dates have been set.

This story was first published on TheCannifornian.com