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Cannabis-linked 'kidnapping' case reflects Emerald Triangle ethnic tensions

Posted on May 9th, 2019 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , , , , , , .

CaliforniaThe arrest of three, including two Bulgarian immigrants, in what is being billed as a "kidnapping" plot against a Humboldt County cannabis grower has shocked the Emerald Triangle. With the accused allegedly seeking to scapegoat "Mexicans" in the caper, the case crystalizes the xenophobic stigma attaching to Northern California's cannabis economy—even now.

It won lurid headlines when three Illinois residents were arrested by the FBI in Humboldt County last month in an alleged plot to rip off a local cannabis grower to the tune of $3 million. The case goes to trial in federal court in San Francisco this month.

Although none of the three have actually been charged with kidnapping, that is the word being bandied about in reportage—based on the claims of an informant. The accused co-consiprators allegedly discussed plans to abduct a courier for the target and "make him suffer" until he gave up the location of his boss' stash of cash and cannabis. As you might expect, attorneys for the accused tell a very different story.

Intrigue at Arcata airport
Federal agents intercepted two of the men, Emanoel Borisov ad Paul Brooks, as they arrived at Arcata's airport on a flight from San Francisco on April 3. The third, Evgeni Kopankov, was apprehended on the road to the airport, where he was apparently headed to pick up the other two. All are charged with attempting to commit "Interference with Commerce by Threats or Violence," and could face up to 20 years in prison. 

An affidavit presented by a Eureka-based FBI agent, quoted in the local news site Redheaded Blackbelt, states that "a [sic] FBI Confidential Human Source (CHS) in Illinois told FBI agents that Borisov approached him about committing a robbery." In the affidavit, Borisov is described as "a large Bulgarian male with numerous tattoos, who previously worked security for strip clubs and marijuana properties in California." Borisov reportedly "told CHS that there was an imminent arrival of approximately $2.3 million in cash to a home in California belonging to a Bulgarian...involved in the cultivation and trafficking of marijuana."

Brooks is described as an ex-Marine and Iraq war veteran who knew Borisov from working at strip clubs in the Chicago area.

Kopankov had apparently already come to the attention of the feds. In December he’d been a passenger on a private plane that flew into Arcata from Georgia with $2 million in cash that was uncovered when a drug-sniffing dog "alerted" to the presence of controlled substances. The cash was seized by the DEA as drug proceeds, although no arrests were made. 

The other passenger on the plane in the December incident was identified as Edgar Garcia, who was said to be in a property dispute with Humboldt resident Ivan Iliev—another man of Bulgarian origin later named as the intended victim in the robbery conspiracy. Kopankov allegedly told the informant they intended to spread false rumors in hopes that Iliev would blame "the Mexicans" for the robbery.

The San Jose Mercury News cited the feds as saying that Borisov had worked in "marijuana fields" in the area, and that Kopankov was "affiliated with growers who cultivate weed by the ton." However, the same Mercury News article incorrectly reports that the men were arrested at San Francisco airport while attempting to get on a flight to Eureka. In fact they were arrested at Arcata airport after arriving from San Francisco. The article also badly mis-spells Kopankov's name, rendering it "Kpokankov." 

'No evidence against my client'
Atorney David Michael of the San Francisco law firm Michael & Burch is representing Kopankov in the case. Contacted by Cannabis Now, he said his own investigations had revealed that the informant in the case is under indictment himself for fraud, which may explain his cooperation with the feds.

Michael says Kopankov lives in the Chicago area and his only involvement in the cannabis business is renting a piece of land in Humboldt to a grower who is licensed by state and local authorities, and operating entirely within the law. (Media accounts place the land in the town of Whitethorn, outside Garberville.)

He also asserts that Kopankov only had $7,000 on his person in the December incident at the Arcata airport—and had paperwork showing it was earned legally in Illinois. He says Kopankov has filed a claim to get that money returned.

As for the supposed robbery and "kidnapping" conspiracy, Michael utterly rejects the accusations against Kopankov. "There is no evidence against my client. It is all a fantasy by this informant. And there is no recorded conversation of him with my guy, only the other two. My client's clean. He came over here from Bulgaria and worked hard and became a citizen. He lives a clean life and is happily married. He's never been in trouble."

Michael says Kopankov made his money running a trucking company in Chicago before purchasing his land on Humboldt. He was bringing furniture out to his Humboldt property when he was busted, Michael says. "Why would he want to do this if he was successful? He's got property and legal businesses going on—why would he plan a crime?"

Michael also notes that the guns and ski-masks supposedly referenced by the informant were never produced.

Finally, Michael says he believes there is xenophobia and ethnic bias at work in the case. "I think the federal government has a built-in antagonism to foreigners who come to this country and take advantage of the cannabis laws in various states. It's especially easy to stereotype Bulgarians as people with no respect for the law. It's easy for the feds to believe claims about guns and masks."

Ethnic stigma and the cannabis stigma
The press coverage has been pretty blatant in playing up the salacious aspect of the case. "It was a plot that reads something like a villainous heist movie, if the FBI’s contentions are true," the Mercuriy News wrote in its lede.

The North Coast Journal opted for: "The story is cut from a Hollywood script, with characters straight from central casting..."  It is noted that the plot was supposedly hatched in conversations at "Polekatz, a sprawling 18,000-square-foot bar about 15 miles outside of Chicago with all nude, full-contact lap dances, poor Yelp reviews and a shady reputation."

There is a sense of life imitating art here, given the current popularity of the fictional Murder Mountain TV series, concerning violent crime set against the backdrop of the Humboldt cannabis industry. The series was blasted by the Humboldt Sheriff's Office earlier this year as "highly sensationalized."

Northern California in recent years has seen a few actual cases of violence concerning "trimmigrants"—the unflattering nickname for seasonal workers who trim the buds of newly harvested cannabis. As is often the case, those stigmatized as violent rabble are themselves victimized by poor labor practices. There was local outrage in 2011 after a Humboldt grower of Bulgarian origin, Taco Nikolov Budnakov, copped a plea to avoid prison time after his operation was raided, spending only two nights in jail. But his four trimmers—three Bulgarians and a Ukrainian—couldn't afford bail and spent almost two months in jail before they were allowed to plead "no contest" to misdemeanor charges.

It's particularly telling that in the current case, Bulgarians, themselves members of a stigmatized group in the area, are accused of seeking to scapegoat Mexicans—another stigmatized group. Certainly media hype about Mexican cartels and even Chinese crime networks moving into the Emerald Triangle's illicit cannabis sector has fueled an atmosphere ripe for such intrigues. In a kind of cultural hangover from cannabis prohibition, there seems to be a continued convergence of the drug stigma and xenophobia. 

Following claims of ethnic bias in local cannabis raids last year, community leaders in the Triangle acknowledged that many growers had been left behind in the transition to a legal market by social marginalization. Terra Carver, executive director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance, admitted: "What we've seen across the board with the Hmong, Bulgarian and Latino populations is there hasn't been a lot of outreach."

Legal cannabis was supposed to de-escalate the wild west atmosphere in the Emerald Triangle. The convoluted case of Borisov, Brooks and Kopankov reveals just how far there is still to go.


Cross-post to Cannabis Now

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