When the sheriff’s deputies and DPS agents finally made the bust at Skinner Brown’s place in Crockett on May 30, even the officers who coordinated the arrests were stunned by what they found. Between Brown’s residence in town and his farm nearby they turned up almost six hundred pounds of processed marijuana in tidy sixteen-ounce frozen bricks and 27 plastic trash bags. There were also about two hundred pounds of seeds, most of them in thirty-gallon trash cans. There were 22,284 marijuana plants, many in a 75- by 175-foot barn equipped with fluorescent and growth lights rigged with ropes and pulleys for lowering and raising as the plants grew. DPS agents estimated the street value of the haul at $12 million—of which the farmer would net a good portion.
Law enforcement officials say that marijuana may be the biggest cash crop in California and a growing enterprise throughout the country. Even so, you don’t expect to find a bust of that magnitude in Crockett, a pleasant farming and manufacturing town of about 7500 people in East Texas. It wasn’t the size of the operation that got the most attention, however. It was the operator. 0. 0. “Skinner” Brown is a short, chunky, balding, 63-year-old farmer and one of the best-known businessmen in town. There are men like him in every small town, the merchants who can be counted on to donate to 4-H fundraisers, support the high school team, and grease the wheels of local commerce.
Our threshold for shock is often sorely tested these days, and this case pushes the limits just a little bit further. Sure, California hippies are making fortunes growing pot in the nether regions of Marin County, but what in the world does it mean when 63-year-old businessmen and pillars of small-town society are doing the same thing in Crockett, Texas? What in the world was Skinner Brown doing with $12 million worth of marijuana?
You won’t get many clues from his background, nor will you get many definitive answers from those who know him. The Browns have been known for generations in Crockett. They acquired some of the best land around, and they have a reputation as a hardworking if cantankerous bunch. Old-timers still talk about the time when two of Skinner’s uncles concluded a disagreement by shooting at each other. In recent years various Browns have found themselves in court, wrangling over one piece of land or another.
Skinner is a Brown through and through, but one who seems to adapt to the times. He has quite a temper, but he is regarded as likable and generous overall. After inheriting some land, he spent much of his time diligently buying up more and more in Houston County and nearby Leon County. “He’d buy up anything he could, “says one longtime friend. “I guess it was his way of chasing a pot of gold.” The Browns had always been farmers, but as the years went by. Skinner became something other than a tiller of the soil. He was an agricultural entrepreneur, and when he was arrested the local papers called him a “prominent Crockett businessman,” not a farmer. He owned the local feed store, S and B Chemicals, and always seemed interested in ways to expand its scope. Not long ago he began selling satellite dishes, along with hog pellets and sheep manure. He continued to buy up land, leveraging himself to the hilt to do it. At the time of his arrest he owned almost five thousand acres. Still, Skinner never lived like a high roller. His idea of a big trip was a visit to the Grand Ole Opry, and his dress didn’t change from the blue jeans he had always worn. He did spice up his personal life a bit, marrying a woman 25 years younger than he was. His young wife, Darlene, seemed as hardworking and down to earth as he was.
The DPS agents, who began the investigation after getting a tip, say it may take months to get a full picture of what was going on in Brown’s financial world. Von Allen, the narcotics officer in charge of the case, says that Skinner had evidently overextended himself and turned to marijuana as a way to get out. “Let’s face it,” says Allen. “Six hundred dollars for a pound of pot is pretty dadgum good.” Law enforcement agencies have served subpoenas on half a dozen banks and have obtained search warrants for Brown’s safe-deposit boxes, bank accounts, business, and home financial records.
Skinner’s arrest got the local rumor mills going. DPS officials make it clear that they’re carefully considering the possibility that other local figures are involved. They are also investigating the role of prominent Texas businessman and convicted drug conspirator Rex Cauble. It turns out that he had land in Leon County near Skinner’s and that the two were friends. With or without the Cauble connection, Allen says that Skinner’s situation is probably not unique. With its rich soil and isolated, sheltered fields, East Texas is perfect terrain for marijuana farming. “It’s getting to be a pretty common thing,” he says. “We’ve got beauscoups of calls since this deal about different people who are well off, driving big cars, with no visible means of support.” Skinner, Darlene, and Skinner’s son Dean were indicted on state drug possession charges July 18. His attorney has met with representatives of the U.S. attorney’s office in Tyler about a possible plea bargain, but nothing has come of it yet.
If you’re charitable, you can see Skinner’s travails as another doleful picture of agony on the farm. No legitimate crop could have raised nearly as much money as marijuana did; part of Skinner’s financial problems stemmed from some disastrous cotton crops, Allen says.
But you will have to look long and hard in Crockett to find someone who will justify a $12 million pot harvest on those grounds. Arnold J. Crell, a retiree, wrote a letter to the Houston County Courier complaining that the town had shrugged the whole thing off. “We see some of our community leaders ‘circling the wagons’ to see that he gets the mildest possible punishment. We see a remarkable demonstration of flexible morality. As Pogo has so aptly said: ‘We have met the enemy, and they is us.’“ But there’s not so much flexible morality as befuddlement here. No one knows quite what to think.
Pogo may be on to something, though. This may be the golden age of risk-taking entrepreneurs—buccaneer dice rollers who are willing to give the thumbs-up sign and go for it. But this also seems to be the golden age of business excess, a time when the elusive line between ambition and greed is especially hazy. Sometimes that excess takes the form of outright scams and illegality, like Cauble’s drug dealings, the Faulkner Point fiasco in Dallas, and the recent case of a Dallas tax-shelter promoter who sold interests in livestock that was often nonexistent or dead. More frequently it’s seen in the routine boorishness of the more conspicuous business heroes whose latest giga-deals are the stuff of real-life soap operas. “I am eventually going to go broke, but so is our federal government,” Ted Turner, one such sage, testified before Congress two years ago. “You operate at massive deficits every year and keep smiling, and so do I.” Of such pearls of wisdom are contemporary financial heroes made. If those are the heroes, is it any surprise that a financially strapped, small-town businessman might figure, “What the hey, let’s go for it too.”
“The world’s changed,” one of Skinner’s friends says, after failing to come up with a good explanation for what happened. We don’t expect small towns to be more moral than big ones, but we like to think of them as social barometers, places to gauge how we’ve changed and how we haven’t. If small-town businessmen find themselves turning into dope tycoons, it’s clear we’ve changed more than we sometimes realize.