The New Pinkertons: Private Security Outfit Raids Pot Farms In California

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They wear camouflaged uniforms, bearing military-style insignia. They ride helicopters over the forests of Mendocino County, Calif., on the state’s north coast, equipped with firearms, where they cut down illegal marijuana. But they aren’t the army. They aren’t even the police. They are Lear Asset Management, a private security firm that is attracting a lot of attention for the work it’s doing — and even perhaps some work it hasn’t done

KCBS in San Francisco described them as “mysterious men dropping from helicopters to chop down” pot plants. Rumors swirl in the area’s marijuana community about heavily armed men choppering onto their private land and cutting down their marijuana plants without identifying themselves or answering questions about who they are. Lear has become a boogeyman of sorts for a certain population in northern California.

But they aren’t hiding. Paul Trouette, Lear Asset Management’s 55-year-old founder, spoke with TPM for more than 30 minutes earlier this week to describe what his company does and why they do it. They see themselves filling a void that law enforcement cannot. Trouette at one point invoked the Pinkertons — the private detective agency notorious for, among other things, violently busting unions and chasing Wild West outlaws — to demonstrate the historical precedent for what they’re now doing in this county of 88,000 on the edge of the California Redwoods.

“Law enforcement just doesn’t have the means to take care of it any longer,” Trouette told TPM. The 2011 murder of Fort Bragg, Calif. city councilman Jere Melo by an illegal trespasser tending poppy plants as Melo patrolled private land for a timber company made a big impression on Trouette, he said. Lear was incorporated the same year, and the company has worked with a non-profit founded in Melo’s memory.

“That’s when the hole began to be filled in my understanding of how to put together a cohesive, legal, organized private security firm that is now dealing with these types of issues,” Trouette said, explaining that he sees Lear “on the cutting edge of citizens becoming involved in their communities and utilizing their legal rights to affect positive change in their communities.”

Paul Trouette, right, before a marijuana clean-up project. Image via Jere Melo Foundation.

Lear has already assumed a quasi-law enforcement role on at least one occasion. In June 2013, Lear was scouting an illegal marijuana grow on private land in rural Mendocino County when it encountered two individuals who were trespassing. They detained the men, one of whom was armed with a handgun, and called the police, who then arrested the men for possessing firearms and methamphetamine, the Willits News reported.

It is probably no surprise then that Trouette described his relationship with the county sheriff as “strained at times.” In a phone interview with TPM, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman seemed a little uncomfortable with having armed contractors operating in his jurisdiction. But he said he hadn’t been given any evidence that Lear had infringed on marijuana growers’ rights — though he would be quick to investigate if he was. Trouette asserted that his team had only ever conducted marijuana raids on private land where they’d been hired to work.

“I will go out of my way to investigate anybody’s who’s doing vigilante work in the name of trying to make the world a better place,” Allman said. “But I can’t open an investigation until somebody says I’m the victim of a crime.”

Marijuana eradication is only about 10 percent of Lear’s work, Trouette said, which also includes environmental clean-up and more traditional private security like guarding construction sites. But regardless, he isn’t worried about infringing on official authority and clearly holds a broad view of what private citizens are allowed to do under state and federal law. At one point, for example, he said that private citizens aren’t restricted by the Fourth Amendment, which covers illegal searches and seizures, in the same way that law enforcement officers are.

“It’s very clear in the penal code that citizens and private persons have an enormous amount of authority under the penal code and also sometimes even more authority where they’re not subject to the Fourth Amendment restrictions,” he continued. “You can witness a felony or a misdemeanor or any public nuisance, in your presence, and you have the ability to affect that arrest. And go to the point where the use of force is equal to the force used in the person that you’re arresting.”

That worldview might stem from his background. Trouette has a family history of military and law enforcement service through his father, grandfather and uncles, he said, though he worked in private investing before founding Lear in 2011. (He repeatedly asked TPM to be discreet with personal details of his life and refused to discuss his family situation, citing the nature of his work).

History plays a significant role in how Trouette understands his work — and ignorance of it and the law, he believes, is why Lear is quickly becoming a fountain of conspiracy theories for the area’s pot farmers.

“Those theories are rooted I think in ignorance of the laws of the state,” he said. “If one studies the laws of the state, they’ll understand that private security or private policing has been around for a couple hundred years. Since 1850, you know, the old Pinkerton agents.”

It could also be an byproduct of how Lear and Trouette present themselves. A widely circulated online video, produced in tandem with the Jere Melo Foundation, shows the group in its natural habitat. They are decked out in their military-style fatigues and armed. They ride into the woods to clean up a former marijuana grow site on land owned by the Mendocino Redwood Company. The soundtrack is reminiscent of an action movie. On an increasingly notorious Lear brochure, the employees look like soldiers and are shown dropping out of helicopters. Some of the employees’ faces are scrubbed in order to protect their anonymity.

The company employs at any given time between 15 to 30 employees made up of former military and federal law enforcement types, Trouette said, and he takes the perceived dangers it brings seriously. In the video, Trouette explains the need for the employees to be armed — and this was produced by the group founded in honor of the murdered city councilman who helped shape Trouette’s understanding of Lear’s work — but he says they haven’t needed to exchange fire yet.

“The more times you work in these fields, the more there is potential for those bad situations,” he told TPM. “That could happen any day. There are a lot of people out in the rural areas who have criminal activities.”

But that conduct has its own serious risks. Sheriff Allman was adamant that he didn’t want to be seen as criticizing Trouette. “I’m not going to say anything negative about his business,” the sheriff told TPM, adding that he supports the property rights of private land owners who want to hire a company like Lear. But then he described his greatest fear knowing that a firm like Trouette’s is working in the same area as his own officers: “Friendly fire.”

“Let me tell you what keeps me awake. If a citizen calls up and says, ‘Listen, there’s men with long guns and camouflage green that look like policemen that are cutting my marijuana down.’ And my dispatcher goes, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s not us,'” he said. “What we’re going to do is we’re going to send cops with guns to this location where we think there’s a marijuana ripoff. Honestly, what could possibly go wrong here? A lot more things are going to go wrong than are going to go right.”

Lear’s self-presentation also complicates any effort to separate fact from fiction in the rumors about Lear — “vigilantes going around the hills,” as Ellen Komp, deputy director of the California branch of the pro-pot National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, described the stories to TPM. The group presents a tough and serious facade, and it has performed dozens of projects. It’s a real business and Trouette’s full-time job. But it also appears to overstate, at least to some degree, its relationship with the law enforcement community — though Trouette told TPM that many authorities are “in total support” of Lear’s work.

In that infamous Lear brochure, the company boasts that it works with state and federal law enforcement agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Land Management. The DEA, BLM and U.S. Forest Service told TPM that they did not have any contracts with the company. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife said that a $78,000 grant that they awarded to a non-profit of which Trouette is a member — the Mendocino County Black Tail Association — was used to hire Lear for environmental clean-up. (Trouette has said there was nothing untoward about his non-profit using a state grant to hire his for-profit company because he abstained from the vote on the grant.)

Patrick Foy, a spokesman for the state department, told TPM that the agency was looking into the situation “to make sure (Trouette) is not working outside the scope of our contracted grant arrangement.”

Trouette explained to TPM that when the brochure says that Lear “works with” those agencies, it generally means that they are “sharing information, intelligence” with them. “We don’t contract with them,” he said. “We work with them collaboratively.”

LEAR 2014 Poster by tpmdocs

Gabriel Chin, a law professor at the University of California-Davis, told TPM that the scope and exact nature of Lear’s work was unlike what he had heard of other security firms doing and Trouette himself said he believed that they were “unique” in California. But the general concept is familiar, dating back to the Pinkertons and others of their ilk, Chin said.

And as actual law enforcement is stretched thinner and thinner, Chin said it shouldn’t be a surprise if more private entities turn to firms like Lear — though it does raise serious questions.

“For decades, we’ve had private security for various sorts of situations and the basic reason for that is that you can’t always just call 9-1-1 and have police respond, even if what you’re talking about is a crime,” he said. “The worry, of course, is that if they’re not careful, if they do go to the wrong place, that there could be violence, unnecessary violence. The worry is that they’re not law enforcement officers and that they might encounter people and violate their rights in some way, or intimidate them or assault or harm them in an effort to protect themselves.”

For his part, Trouette seems aware of at least some of these challenges. He said he had set up a meeting with the local marijuana growers association to explain his company’s work. While the relationship with actual law enforcement is clearly imperfect — Trouette himself acknowledged there are a lot of “type-A personalities” involved — both he and Allman stressed the need for them to work well together to avoid the kind of “friendly fire” situation that Allman described to TPM.

So Trouette is becoming public relations-conscious. He initially declined to speak with KCBS for the first story that brought Lear national attention. But he has since spoken with Time magazine as well as TPM at length in an effort to shed the mystique of his firm’s operations.

“We’re really concerned about being painted in the right light,” he said. “There has been some really wacko stuff.”

Lead image via Lear Asset Management.

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