JUSTICE

The Marijuana SWAT Raid With No Marijuana

JUSTICE
Apr 21, 2014 at 7:23 AM ET

The only sign that something unusual was happening was the whir of helicopter blades hovering overhead in the days before. Somebody also mentioned spotting an unmanned drone—unusual in a rural Dallas suburb.

At 7: 30 on the morning of Aug. 2, everyone was still in bed except for Quinn Eaker, a slim, 6-feet-something former model with dreadlocked hair and a small goatee spun into a point and bound using cotton thread. Eaker had gone outside to investigate after hearing noises. When he got to the hedge, just beyond the back door, he noticed the gate was open and the padlock broken. Then he saw several men dressed in black, so he walked back into the house and started to wake its occupants.

Soon afterward, those men burst through the door carrying sidearms and semiautomatic rifles. Within minutes, most of the people living there were in handcuffs, sitting on the floor of the lounge. Eaker was upstairs with his girlfriend, Inok Alrutz, who was scrambling to put on some clothes. She feared the most for her two babies—one just a few weeks old and the other 2 years—still in bed. That’s when a voice called from the bottom of the stairs: “ID yourselves. Come down with your hands up.”

Six months earlier, Shellie Smith, the petite 54-year-old who owns the 3-and-a-half-acre property off a remote road outside Arlington, Texas, had received letters from the city claiming she had committed code violations. For a couple of years, Smith had run the place she called the Garden of Eden with Quinn Eaker, her former lover, and they had provided food, shelter and lessons in sustainability, aquaponics and various other agricultural practices for free to the public.

In a fairly short time, the Garden of Eden had become an “intentional community”—a commune—and a total of about 20 men, women and children lived there. Code compliance letters complained that the grass was too tall, the bushes were too close to the street, the chopped wood wasn’t properly stacked and the trash was left out in the yard.

Last month, Arlington’s Code Compliance Services department finally prosecuted Shelley Smith for violations, and the court fined her $2,432. City spokesperson Sana Syed tells Vocativ there are a couple of outstanding violations still to be addressed.

Hopefully, they won’t be dealt with in the same way as they were on Aug. 2, when city authorities waited behind the white fence while a police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team conducted a raid on Smith’s property. Code Compliance Services had an inspection and abatement warrant; the police department, meanwhile, had a separate warrant to search for marijuana plants. But after what Smith and Eaker describe as a frightening 10-hour ordeal, the SWAT team found nothing and left empty-handed.

“They were totally separate investigations,” Syed says of the police SWAT raid and the visit by code compliance officers. “But there were police officers accompanying our code enforcement people. This is not out of the ordinary. We were dealing with a community that considers itself ‘sovereign.’ It doesn’t acknowledge government or the laws within it. And there are police officers who have been shot by members of self-proclaimed sovereign nations in the past. The code inspectors wanted protection.”

It’s midmorning one weekday in late March when I arrive at the Garden of Eden. The first thing you see are the numerous garden beds forged from used tractor tires, brimming with produce. Three kids play outside the back door of the large white house on a trampoline and plastic furniture.

Quinn Eaker emerges from the back door wearing a long, brown woolen dress and kaftan. He’s an imposing figure with piercing chestnut eyes. He shakes my hand, then closes his eyes and breathes in the morning air. He gives me a quick tour of the property. There’s bamboo planted all over the fringes of the acreage to keep out prying eyes now, he says. “But we can eat the shoots in springtime.”

Aquaponic systems have been set up in tractor tires and a plastic above-ground swimming pool. Fish—usually tilapia—swim (and poop) in the water inside, and the fertilized water is pumped into raised beds full of vegetables.

“It’s the way of the future,” Eaker says. “You can get a lot more out of a small space, and we’re growing 365 days a year. No need for soil or composting.” Nearby, a large number of tires are also employed as more conventional garden beds for beets, kale, spinach, arugula, butter leaf and collards. “I rarely eat meat,” Eaker says. “We love salads, and I’m a huge juice fan.”

A woman pulls up at the gate in a smart new BMW. “I’ve come to collect Matthew,” she tells Eaker. Later, he explains to me that she arrives the same time most mornings to pick up her son and take him to college. “But he doesn’t want the lifestyle she wants for him; he doesn’t want to go to college. And I’ve told him it’s pointless.”

Right now there are 14 adults and six children living up at the Garden of Eden. Anyone can come, but they have to accept that what Eaker says goes. Even though the property legally belongs to Shelley Smith, Eaker says she has given it to him. There are no rules, per se, but everyone has to help around the property—with the vegetable gardens, goats, chickens and preparing food. “We get rid of religion, dogma, brainwashing here,” Eaker says.

They don’t sell any of the produce they grow—Eaker says it’s all used to feed residents. “People have no comprehension of how awesome our life is on a daily basis,” he says.

Awesome, apart from when the SWAT team came beating down their door.

According to the search warrant affidavit, Eaker had previously been caught with a small amount of marijuana in July, and the police had “good reason to believe” that a raid on the property would uncover “live marijuana plants,” “materials used in the packaging, cutting, weighing and distribution” of weed, “high intensity lights, water pumps,” “books and records” relating to the distribution of pot, and “photographs or videos of contraband and/or members of a trafficking organization that distributes marijuana.”

It reads like a laundry list for a high-profile drug dealer. As part of its investigation, the Arlington Police Department had, according to the affidavit, “conducted computerized research on the Garden of Eden.” This apparently refers to an officer browsing the organization’s website, IntotheGardenofEden.com, and discovering terminology she believed referred to drugs.

An expert with 17 years of experience hopped in a helicopter to conduct an aerial investigation and identified an alleged plot of weed from about 400 feet above the property. He apparently spotted 100,000 marijuana plants from the air. They turned out to be tomatillo plants, but were also listed as a line item in the affidavit that justified the SWAT raid.

The affidavit painted a tenuously substantiated but terrifying “worst scenario” picture of what could go wrong if the premises was, in fact, a huge drug production facility guarded by thuggish, armed dealers. Based largely on a previous “arrest” of Eaker (which the police department subsequently confirmed had never happened) and an anonymous tip detailing supposed drugs and firearms, the police set about building a case for invasion.

The affidavit insinuates the presence of drug production materials, money and guns (and people willing to use them to defend their drug empire). It pairs stock legal phraseology with descriptions of standard behavior of drug peddlers to establish a likely daily routine at the property. It reads like a loose plot outline for Breaking Bad, a catalogue of stereotypical bad-guy traits.

“AFFIANT [Detective Perez] knows that individuals involved in illegal narcotic activity often carry firearms.”

“AFFIANT knows, based on experience and training…that narcotics traffickers make substantial profits…which they attempt to legitimize.”

“AFFIANT further believes that firearms are present and accessible to occupants or the property” (based on an anonymous tip).

Toward the end of the affidavit (embedded below), the momentum of circumstantial reckonings builds to a crescendo, with the detective claiming that because of a security camera and a lock on the gate, anything other than an unannounced raid would serve to tip off the occupants and risk police officers walking into a “fatal funnel,” in which they could be picked off easily by the gun-toting gangsters within.

Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Weisskopf signed off on the affidavit on Aug. 1. The scene was set.

Eaker says he wasn’t scared when the SWAT team came running through the house. “I yelled back that there were two adults upstairs—me and Inok—and our two nursing children, Inoquinn and Quinnoki. I said I had no weapons and that I was coming down,” Eaker says. “I told them to be calm—that there was no danger. Then I stood at the top of the stairs and made sure they could see my hands.”

Eaker says he walked downstairs slowly before two men grabbed him and slapped him in handcuffs. “Then they went upstairs and grabbed Alrutz, leaving the babies alone in bed—guarded by another officer at gunpoint,” he says. “The children had never been away from their mother. They’d never been to the doctor. There was no midwife when they were born, no immunizations, drugs. They’re the most pure children that could exist. And the police took their mother away.”

“Do you realize they’re nursing?” Eaker says he asked the men. He claims that for two hours nobody was told why the raid had happened. Eventually Eaker was taken away for an unpaid traffic ticket.

Shelley Smith walks over as I stand by the vegetable beds with Eaker. “The police will tell you we were in handcuffs for 30 minutes,” she says. “But it was two hours. There are all sorts of variations in their story. We were held at gunpoint for 10 hours altogether. If they’re going to have a helicopter fly above our land, they should have some facts. It was definitely scary. They had big black assault rifles, ski masks, black goggles. You couldn’t see any skin except for the finger on their gun triggers.”

Eaker interrupts: “They cut down our crops, they stole our shit—all on speculation and hearsay.”

In a statement to the media, Arlington police said members of its tactical unit assisted in executing the search warrant so that narcotics detectives could enter the property. “Several people were initially handcuffed. …Once it was safe to do so, they were un-handcuffed within 30 minutes and allowed to conduct their daily business around the property, including the opportunity to leave the premises if they so desired. …No cultivated marijuana plants were located on the premises.”

Lieutenant Christopher Cook says he wasn’t getting into a discussion about the botched raid again. “This thing has run its course,” he says, speaking to me over the phone. “We did nothing wrong as far as the SWAT raid. In fact we don’t like to use the word ‘raid.’ Sometimes you come up and you don’t find contraband you’re looking for. That’s what happened here and that led to criticism.”

Cook’s team may be following standard operating procedure, but that standard has shifted dramatically over the last 30 years. So-called “no-knock warrants,” by which police seek permission to aggressively storm a property unannounced, have become increasingly common. There were between 2,000 and 3,000 a year in the 1980s, and now there are more than 70,000 a year, according to Peter Kraska, a professor for criminal justice at Eastern Kentucky University. And often the people on the receiving end are left baffled, seeking justice.

Eaker, who turned 31 in February, was born in St. Louis and moved with his parents to Colleyville, Texas, when he was 3 years old. Smith grew up in the mountains of Colorado. She was married for 25 years—to a helicopter pilot—and the couple moved to Dallas and had two kids. Then they relocated to the property she lives in now, in Arlington. “Back then, it was a dirt road, and we loved the peace and quiet. I spent most of the time mowing the yard,” she laughs.

Smith and her husband separated. She considered moving and put the house on the market. That’s when Eaker moved in. “I knew Quinn,” Smith says. “We were friends with his family—with his mom and dad. And we’d been friends for a long time. But we connected again and fell so deeply in love. We spent two years here together, doing art and pottery, creating amazing food dishes, massaging each other. Obviously it was difficult for his mom and my kids, and there were some conflicts. But one day, standing out on this deck, Quinn had an expansive, explosive vision.”

That vision was the Garden of Eden—a sustainable community that would open its doors to whoever wanted to come and join them. The white-painted gate at the Garden of Eden in Arlington used to remain open. People could come in and buy clothes and jewelry made by members of the community; and they could tour the garden beds. That was before the raid. “The shop’s on hold now,” Eaker says. The gate is locked, too. “We have to protect the children.”

Authorities in Texas have come under intense criticism for the way they have handled raids on intentional communities in the past, including the Branch Davidian compound in Waco in 1993 in which more than 80 people, including 17 children, ultimately perished in a fire. A similar snafu took place at a ranch outside the town of Eldorado in 2008 when authorities took custody of more than 400 children after learning that a fundamentalist Mormon sect led by a man called Warren Jeffs was encouraging men to marry underage girls. Two months later, they returned those children to their parents.

It begs the question: Were no lessons learned? The American Civil Liberties Union has decried what it calls the “increasing militarization” of the police in America. “Police officers on our streets and in our neighborhoods are not soldiers fighting a war,” the ACLU has said. “Yet many have been armed with tactics and weapons designed for battle overseas. The result: people—disproportionately those in poor communities and communities of color—have become targets for violent SWAT raids, often because the police suspect they have small amounts of drugs in their homes. This is a problem.”

Kara Dansky, senior counsel at the ACLU, tells Vocativ her organization is to publish a report this summer following a year-long study into the militarization of the police and their use of SWAT. Dansky says SWAT was formed in the 1960s to respond to serious situations–active shooter scenarios, snipers, riots. “Police officers died. And many departments felt they needed special equipment and training.” But Dansky says increasingly they have used SWAT to serve search warrants in low-level drug cases. “And we know that’s not what SWAT was originally created for. Based on our investigation, we can say we have observed a pattern that suggests there’s not a lot of transparency or oversight into the use of SWAT teams generally. And we think there could be more transparency and oversight.”

Meanwhile, Quinn Eaker, his disparate band of utopia-seekers and others like them will continue their experiment in self-sufficiency and communal living—only now with the added fear that at any time the gate could be breached and their silence broken.