The man who called himself “Charles Grass” and was dubbed the “Godfather of Grass” is no angel.
John Robert “Johnny” Boone guarded his fields with rottweilers whose vocal chords had been surgically removed, so they could attack silently. To fend off “rippers” who might try to steal his crop, his crew set booby traps, including fishhooks hung at eye level, trip wires tied to dynamite, and live rattlesnakes tied to poles.
And Boone, despite a white, bushy beard that made him look like Santa Claus, did his business armed with semi-automatic TEC-9 handguns and AR-15 rifles, the Courier-Journal reported.
But in the central Kentucky counties of Marion and Washington that spawned what law enforcement dubbed the Cornbread Mafia, he is respected, even beloved, for his loyalty, generosity and humble ways. Law enforcement officials once considered his group America’s largest domestic marijuana producing organization.
“Johnny is a helluva good fellow,” said Joe Rigdon, who runs a garage in Lebanon. “If you need a dollar, he’ll help you out.”
Former U.S. Marshal Rick McCubbin said Boone took care of the community, such as buying air conditioners for the schools. And they repaid him with their loyalty, said McCubbin, now chief of police in Shepherdsville, where he has a “Run Johnny Run” T-shirt on the wall.
When deputy marshals tried in vain to find him during the eight years he spent on the lam, they ran smack into a wall of silence in his former haunts like Springfield and Loretto. “They were very honest,” McCubbin said. “They said they wouldn’t tell where he was even if they knew.”
And when law enforcement agencies arrested 70 people — 69 men and one woman — on 29 farms in 10 states in 1987, not a single one talked to the government in exchange for a lesser sentence, said James Higdon, a Lebanon native and author of “The Cornbread Mafia: A Homegrown Syndicates’s Code of Silence and the Biggest Marijuana Bust in American History.”
Boone, 73, who faces life in prison if convicted on his third marijuana cultivation charge, is being held pending trial in the Oldham County Jail. He is married, and his wife, Marilyn declined to comment at an April fundraiser held in Loretto on his behalf.
While his criminal record stretches to the 1960s and includes charges of wanton endangerment and illegal firearm possession, he’s never been convicted of a violent crime, according to Higdon and his book, from which much of this story is drawn.
Boone was born in Washington County and raised by his grandfather, a veteran of Prohibition who learned to supplement his family income with moonshining and bootlegging and whatever else seemed necessary to keep the farm afloat, according to Higdon’s account, which was published in 2012 when Boone was on the run.
Boone led three squad cars and five officers on a chase, knowing he couldn’t get away, but selflessly allowing his workers to escape.
As a 15-year-old in 1958, Boone won the state 4-H championship in sheep breeding, earning a trip to Chicago for the national 4-H congress, and two years later, another championship, for tobacco growing. Graduating high school in 1961 as a three-time football letterman and in the top one-sixth of his class, he planned to enter the University of Kentucky in the fall, wrote the Springfield Sun, according to Higdon’s book.
Instead, Boone started a family and stayed on the farm, and by the 1970s, he “had channeled his 4-H skills into a new agricultural challenge: raising the best breed of pot ever grown in Kentucky — a variety that High Times magazine later named “Kentucky Bluegrass,” the book says.
For a time, he grew pot in Belize, which led to his first bust — and a five-year hitch in federal prison.
In 1987, after police flew over a 355-acre farm in Minnesota — and saw two huge rectangles of green below, each the length of four football fields — they raided the place.
Boone led three squad cars and five officers on a chase, knowing he couldn’t get away, but selflessly allowing his workers to escape, Higdon wrote in his book. When he was caught and asked his name, he responded, “Charles Grass.”
Police found a loaded rifle and handgun in his truck, and thousands of rounds of ammo, but Boone made no attempt to turn them on officers, the book says.
Before he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, Boone told the court that what he and his crew had done was wrong, but he said: “We’re from a poor place … I don’t think anybody here is into any kind of thievery. I can only say that … in our area, marijuana is one of the things that helps put bread on the table for people.
“We’re not criminals, we’re not,” he said. “We’re not the kind of people who go out and harm people.”