In this July 11, 2017 photo, James Bowman, a marijuana grower, walks through his property in Wimer, Ore. Bowman was tortured for hours by seven masked intruders in December of 2016. (Jamie Lusch, The Medford Mail Tribune via AP)

From high hopes to near death: An Oregon cannabis grower’s story

MEDFORD, Ore. — On a frosty night in December, James Bowman was alone and overcome with exhaustion. The cannabis grower had worked hard all day processing plants at his BlueSky Gardens near Wimer, lacking the money to keep his crew on hand to provide security through the night.

Arguably southern Oregon’s best-known grower, the 57-year-old struggled financially to make it through the harvest. His ambitious High Hopes Farm in the Applegate, once toured by legislators as a model of medical marijuana grows, had been raided by federal agents in 2012. He’d spent two years in court to avoid a conviction, which took a toll on his pocketbook.

He needed this harvest to put him back on solid financial ground. Earlier on that fateful day of Dec. 16, 2016, he had just talked to an investor he thought was going to help him out, which eased his mind as he slipped into bed.

Finally, just before 2 a.m., he fell asleep. He was so tired he didn’t have the energy to patrol the grounds first, something he usually did as a security measure. As he lay in bed, he was startled when he heard the front door open.

Was it one of his workers? He called out. No one answered. Bowman sat up on the edge of the bed.

Then seven intruders, all wearing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle masks, rushed in, with one pulling a pillow case over Bowman’s head and another hitting his skull several times with a gun until blood flowed into his eyes and ears. That was just the beginning of a night of terror that Bowman feared he would not survive.

High hopes — a model for growers

Bowman first started growing marijuana when he was 16 and living in Iowa. Convinced of its ability to help people suffering a variety of medical problems, he dreamed of the day when marijuana would become legal.

In 1991, he was sent to prison for three years on a pot conviction. Undaunted, Bowman championed the benefits of cannabis in Oregon, where he saw better opportunities for growers. He said he cheered on the legalization of medical marijuana, and eventually recreational.

“On the very year it’s legal, I get a beating,” he said during a recent interview at the modest home on the farm. “It just blows me away.”

In 2001, he had his first medical marijuana grow at High Hopes Farm near Ruch. By 2008, he was officially growing for patients. Prior to the federal raid, he was supplying cannabis to 200 patients. At the time, Bowman was the largest medical marijuana producer in Oregon, according to Oregon Health Authority statistics.

After recovering from the federal raid, he set up operations at a 40-acre property outside Wimer in 2015 to grow medical pot but was transitioning to recreational. As he talked at times with animation and sadness, Bowman recalled that in 2015, he met with two representatives from neighboring Meadowlark Farms in Gold Hill, including Frank William Foremski, about a possible investment in the farm. Little did Bowman know, Foremski had ties to the men in the masks.

‘I was begging them to stop’

Bowman’s attackers, who referred to each other as Mutant Ninja characters Michelangelo and Donatello, zip-tied Bowman’s hands and feet. They began pummeling him, demanding he tell them where his money was hidden. Bowman told them he didn’t have any. It was the truth.

For nearly five hours, they took turns beating Bowman, using firewood, a crowbar, their fists. They burned his naked body with a butane torch until, luckily, it quickly ran out of fuel. They used a drill to burrow into his hip until the battery also quickly went dead.

“I cried like a baby. I was begging them to stop,” Bowman recalled. “The head guy hit me the hardest and the most.”

He counted 20 blows to his head before he lost track.

Two of his attackers enjoyed torturing him, he said. He felt sure he would die, particularly during the last two hours when he struggled to stay conscious.

“I was thinking about my loved ones and thinking about all the things I wish I had done and said to people,” he said.

When the attackers weren’t beating Bowman, they were ripping his house apart looking for the money. They forced Bowman to tell them where the video surveillance cameras were located, then dumped the equipment in a bathtub and filled it with water to destroy any evidence of the attack.

Before they left, the attackers stole about 300 pounds of Bowman’s marijuana. They tied Bowman to a chair with speaker wire and threw cold water on him, leaving him to shiver for five hours with the front door open before his workers arrived and rescued him. He spent four days in the hospital, recovering from his injuries.

When the attackers fled in a moving truck loaded with Bowman’s marijuana, they got stuck in the ditch on a driveway belonging to one of the neighbors. Emergency dispatch sent out a sheriff’s community service officer to investigate at 8:55 a.m., never suspecting Bowman was injured not far away. At 10:15 a.m., the call came in to dispatch that Bowman had been tied up and beaten. By then, the attackers had left in their moving truck.

Rounding up suspects

Bowman said he hopes authorities find the masterminds behind the attack, because he doesn’t think his assailants, who flew out here to attack him, acted alone. He even suspects a couple of other pot farms in the area may have been hit, but the owners didn’t report it to authorities.

Marco Boccato, the Jackson County deputy district attorney prosecuting the case, said he believes most, if not all, the eight people involved in the attack have been arrested, had warrants issued for their arrest or are awaiting extradition.

“It has been a monumental effort to identify all the suspects,” he said. “What they did was horrific, really.”

Boccato said it’s unusual to be able to track down all the suspects in a case like this, though it’s a complicated and slow process to get them extradited from other states. A cellphone dropped by one of the attackers provided many of the clues needed to track down the suspects.

“This level of violence, this level of planning is unusual,” Boccato said.

The cellphone revealed Foremski, 34, had texted the attackers about cutting wires to security cameras and bringing a truck to Bowman’s house, according to a probable cause affidavit. Authorities don’t believe Foremski was at Bowman’s house during the attack. Foremski pleaded guilty on April 24 to charges of first-degree burglary and first-degree aggravated theft. He still faces a robbery charge that could net him five years and 10 months in prison.

Other suspects include Dennis Earl Reynolds, 39, of Pennsylvania, Jody Deville Reynolds, 34, of Georgia, Edward A. Molet, 28, of Georgia, Christopher Tyrone Osborne, 33, of Georgia, Derrick Earl Shields, 34, of California, and Leonta Flowers, 16, of Georgia. Another suspect hasn’t been identified.

Starting anew not so easy

James Bowman talks in his home in Wimer, Ore. (Jamie Lusch, The Medford Mail Tribune via AP)

Struggling with ongoing pain and post-traumatic stress from the attack, Bowman has a new worry. He needs an investor to help him make a balloon payment on his farm.

The growing season has begun, and Bowman has no plants in the ground and little money. Last year, he grew 2,000 pounds of marijuana. The bulk of it was sold for $200 to $300 a pound, though the same marijuana was priced at $300 an ounce at local stores.

Bowman believes the recreational marijuana industry is so overregulated that it encourages out-of-state investors with the money and the means to establish commercial grows, edging out small farms struggling to finance growing, harvesting and testing before revenue starts coming in from sales. He said the growers’ ability to get top dollar for their product is getting squeezed by wholesalers and investors.

Since Oregon produces a glut of marijuana, Bowman said he thinks states that have legalized pot should allow state-to-state exchanges of product, which would be a boon to local growers. In particular, he cites Nevada, which has been scrambling to meet demand for cannabis.

Video cameras and other regulations, including excessive testing protocols, are burdensome for growers and don’t do much to stop excess marijuana from flowing into the black market, Bowman said. At the same time, he said there is no oversight of smaller growers and the potential to sell their harvests illegally.

He said testing laboratories continue to be a bottleneck for growers, who have to sit on their processed marijuana until the testing is completed. Even the testing results vary from sample to sample, so the results posted for the consumer are questionable, he said. He said the most important test for mold isn’t required anymore by the state.

OLCC responds

Steve Marks, executive director of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, said his agency recommends a strong staff presence 24 hours a day at grow sites to provide the proper level of security.

However, he said it was touch-and-go financially for many growers last year when they shifted from medical marijuana to the recreational market.

“Don’t get into it unless you have the wherewithal to make it,” he advised them.

Marks said he couldn’t discuss why Foremski was still working at a licensed marijuana grow, noting the OLCC does monitor individuals who are going through the criminal justice system.

But he said it can be frustrating for the OLCC because it can’t take any action to suspend a grower’s permit until a conviction is made.

While he didn’t want to comment on Bowman’s case specifically, Marks said that kind of home invasion and level of violence have been rare throughout the state. However, earlier this month at an Applegate cannabis farm, one worker allegedly stabbed another worker multiple times.

Marks said there has been a lot of contention in the industry about how much marijuana is making its way into the black market.

As to surveillance equipment, Marks said it has helped his agency in enforcement actions against growers.

“It’s making the case for us around a lot of the violations we have,” he said.

Right now, the OLCC has looked at almost 200 cases with compliance issues statewide, but has narrowed it down to about 40 that haven’t accounted for their product properly, he said. Many of these cases have been initiated through video records or by informants, he said.

In southern Oregon, moldy marijuana last year made it more difficult to verify the amount of product, he said. At the time, many growers weren’t following proper protocols to dispose of their marijuana, but he said the OLCC has worked with them to improve the accounting and reporting of moldy marijuana.

Market changing rapidly

Jamie Syken, owner of Dirty Arm Farm and part of a new wave of upscale growers, said Bowman’s torture reverberated through the grower community.

“I feel for him and the trauma he went through,” Syken said.

During the two years cannabis has been legal, the industry has undergone tremendous changes, he said. Consumers now demand high-end flower, and oils, dabs and other components of marijuana have become more popular.

The market changes have forced growers to hone their skills.

“If Harry and David started selling real ugly pears with spots, their market would go down,” Syken said. “You get paid according to your works.”

He said there are a lot of people producing sun-grown marijuana, which he thinks doesn’t produce the kind of high-quality flower people generally expect now.

“A lot of that becomes $300 a pound,” he said.

Syken said he personally hasn’t seen an influx of thugs and degenerates in the cannabis industry.

In order to succeed, he said it requires considerable business skills and a willingness to produce a product that is marketable.

“Now it is more of a niche market,” he said.

He said he finds himself writing up standard operating procedures, calling his lawyer and conducting his grow operation in a more professional manner.

He said it typically takes him about four days to get results back from a lab for the testing of his cannabis.

Death of a dream

Before the robbery, Bowman said he was well on his way to developing an extraction business to better compete with changing market conditions.

Now, he’s trying to deal with both mental and physical pain while trying to keep his operation afloat.

When he created High Hopes Farm in the Applegate, he was proud to show it off to legislators and others who visited.

“I was trying to be a model to see how that model would work,” he said.

Bowman said his ordeal has undermined his almost 40-year dream for the legalization of marijuana, turning his dream into a nightmare.

“I’ve gone from high hopes to the death of a dream,” he said. “I would say, at this point knowing what I know now, that I’d prefer it was illegal. It’s very bittersweet in the end.”

Via AP Member Exchange. Information from: Mail Tribune