Having doubled their initial investment in roughly a day, Nate and Topher quickly planned a second run. This time, they bought two pounds. Before they knew it, they had gone from struggling to put gas in their cars to running a major pot enterprise that was bringing in thousands of dollars a day. "Within a few weeks I went from selling eighths to quarter pounds," says Scuzz, who could pass for a pro snowboarder with his goatee and wraparound shades. "Our plan was to make 3 million and get out. When you crunch the numbers, that's nothing. We figured out we could do it in fourteen months. But when you're making twenty or thirty grand a week, why the fuck would you stop?"
As business boomed, the guys found a couple of steady suppliers from Nelson – a town that Drew Edwards, in his book West Coast Smoke, calls "the marijuana-culture capital of North America." Nelson's remoteness makes it ideal terrain for pot growers – so much so that the town of 10,000 has its own currency exchange. Overlooking the main street is the Holy Smoke Culture Shop, a white clapboard house with a giant marijuana leaf painted on the side. Next to the pot leaf is a profile of Peter Tosh large enough to rival Sovietera portraits of Stalin. Holy Smoke is the local head shop – but in Nelson, it functions more like a second city hall. Hikers, snowboarders and potheads come to Nelson from all over the continent to openly smoke weed and to buy one of the various strains of B.C. Bud, christened with brand names for marketing purposes: Triple-A, Crystal Globe, SIN/D.
"You know, name sells," says Jonas, a local who has worked full-time as a grower and smuggler. "I read in People or some stupid shit a list of the highest-stress jobs. Number one was president of the United States. Number two was drug smuggler." He chuckles. "This is above astronauts!"
To keep up with demand, Nate and Topher soon drew their friends into the operation. Aside from Scuzz, there was Topher's friend Tim Hunt, a nineteen-year-old whose family had moved to Coeur D'Alene from Alaska after his father, caught poaching moose, committed suicide; Scuzz's best friend, Rhett Mayer, a supersmart kid who never touched weed but began driving scout cars en route to the border; and Nate's buddy Dustin Lauer, ironically nicknamed "the Rock" because he was five-foot-six and chubby but always tried to be a tough guy. The dealers rarely made border runs. "Nate did it a couple of times, just for fun," says Topher. "He'd drink four Red Bulls and be darting from tree to tree like a crazy guy."
Topher remained the head runner, paid a flat fee of $1,000 per crossing. He was also in charge of the new recruits. The crew was immediately outfitted with hundreds of dollars' worth of equipment, everything from new boots to night-vision goggles to a spray, purchased on the Internet, that was supposed to make them "invisible" to heat sensors. (Says Terry Morgan, a police detective who investigated Nate's crew, "I always tell people, 'Oh, yeah, that works great. Keep using it.'")
Runners would cross the border, six at a time, carrying long canvas hockey bags filled with cash – eventually as much as $400,000 a run. In Canada, they would meet their contacts from Nelson on an old closed road and exchange the cash for weed. They always crossed at night. Once they were back in America, a truck would swing by and pick up the weed. Topher and his men would spend the rest of the night in the woods and be picked up around sunrise. Aside from the obvious demands of hiking for miles with heavy loads, they had some close calls. One night, Topher stumbled across a DEA agent, asleep in his truck; another time, they got lost and nearly froze to death when the temperature dropped to fourteen below zero.
Nate and his friends were suddenly making – and spending – preposterous amounts of money. They bought four-wheelers, jet skis, plasma-screen televisions, minidisc players. "If it had a 'best' option, we had it," says Scuzz. Tim Hunt threw a lavish New Year's Eve lingerie party. Platinum jewelry, deemed not flashy enough, was returned for gold. Aside from Topher, everyone involved was in their teens and early twenties, which made the upswing in their collective lifestyle that much more radical.
"When we started, most of us were still living with our moms," notes Scuzz. Now, they were buying or renting enormous lakefront homes – one simply as a stash house for money and drugs. Nate's house had eight bedrooms. "I moved into a lake house that was unreal," says Scuzz. "My parents didn't know about it. I told them I lived in a bullshit-ass apartment."
Perhaps unwisely, the guys flagrantly ignored an oft-quoted maxim from Scarface – namely, never get high on your own supply. "We were stoned every day," Scuzz confirms. "Me and Nate would just take the best-looking bags. I don't think I had a sober day for three years. I mean," he quickly adds, "a lot of it was networking. We were finding clients. You know, go hang out at some dude's house, smoke with him, find out if he knows anybody out of state to sell to. Next day, go to some other dude's house. But in the in-between time, yeah, we'd be rolling two-ounce joints and playing video games."
Such behavior, while enjoyable, led to the occasional lapse in judgment. Example: Nate decided he needed a Cadillac Escalade, so he sent a couple of his guys – with $40,000 in cash – to buy one from some dude in North Dakota.
"The dumb-asses," says Detective Morgan, "took a video camera."
"It's like watching Wayne's World," says Cikutovich, Nate's lawyer. "They're videotaping themselves smoking doobies. Then they get there and there's no Escalade, and they're going, 'Dude! Let's find this guy and beat him up!'" Nate eventually bought the Escalade in Seattle, paying cash and telling the salesman he won the money gambling.
"We were doing a lot of stupid shit," groans Scuzz. "I mean, we were living in a town where, if you get in a car wreck, your mom's uncle will know immediately. Everyone knows everything that's going on. And we're moving hundreds of pounds of weight, making millions of dollars. But we were a bunch of eighteen-year-olds, and we weren't thinking about the long run. We just had that attitude. We didn't give a fuck."
Nate, meanwhile, was beginning to change. His presence had always been tolerated with a smirk. Now, suddenly, he was Tony Montana. He became cocky and disrespectful. He also began using cocaine, which made him paranoid. They had all agreed, early on, not to have guns. But now, with so much cash around, Nate bought a Mac-109 mm submachine gun and an AR-15 assault rifle.
"He went from having this humble personality to thinking he was this badass smuggler no one could touch," says Topher. "He would drive around town with his twenty-four-inch rims and diamond chains, listening to hardcore rap. Just this perfect drug-dealer image. And people were starting to fear him, because he had power and money."
Now the only thing the drug kingpin formerly known as the Keebler Elf needed was a girlfriend. He found her, of course, at a strip club.
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