By this point, the operation had expanded to include at least thirty-two people. They were making four to six runs a month, moving hundreds of pounds of B.C. Bud to California, Montana and other parts of Idaho.
Topher, though, was becoming anxious. He'd already tried to quit once, but Nate had upped his pay to $8,000 a run. "So I kept doing it," he says. "But I told myself, 'This is going to have a horrible ending.'" He tried to warn his friend about being so flashy with his spending, but Nate just laughed, insisting he wouldn't stop until he went to prison.
The Coeur D'Alene police department knew about Nate and his crew, but the cops were too busy to bother with pot dealers. "They were back-burner cases," says Detective Morgan. "We were doing three meth labs a week. We don't hold a back seat to anybody with our meth labs."
In the end, Nate was not undone by his own greed but by overlooking one of the basic tenets of capitalism: Never underestimate the competition. Nate's most serious rival was a kid named Brendan Butler. Born in Korea, Butler had been adopted at age two by an upper-middle-class couple in Hayden Lake, a suburb of Coeur D'Alene. His friends and family all called him by his nickname, "Wang," which means "little prince" in Korean. Butler was a short kid, only five-foot-four, but exceptionally bright, having graduated early, and with honors, from the prestigious Gonzaga Preparatory School in Spokane.
Instead of going to college, though, Butler had an epiphany similar to Nate's. Soon after graduation, he'd set up his own smuggling operation. And like Nate, he wasted no time in working up his own gangster persona. He drove around town in a lowriding '93 El Dorado with tinted windows and tricked-out rims, and began abusing cocaine and OxyContin.
In a market as small as Coeur D'Alene, there was bound to be trouble. Nate and Butler "were running across a lot of the same customers," says Detective Morgan. The crews clashed as they encroached on each other's territories. As Topher says, "It became this 'fuck you'-'fuck you' situation."
Butler began to put out word that he was looking for "muscle." Through friends, he met an older "enforcer" type – a thirty-three-year-old aspiring graphic artist with no criminal record named Giovanni Mendiola, Gio to friends. Butler met with Mendiola in Coeur D'Alene and told him that he wanted Nate and Scuzz robbed and killed. Mendiola agreed to do the job for $100,000. A few days later, Mendiola checked into a Howard Johnson's with his brother Eddie and two other men. Butler paid them $5,000 upfront, then accompanied them on a shopping trip to Kmart, where they bought black shoes, pants, gloves and windbreakers, as well as tarps for disposing of the bodies. Butler also provided guns: two assault rifles, a .357 Magnum, a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol and a Tech 9 handgun. Mendiola had brought his own knife. He planned to cut off Nate's and Scuzz's fingers.
One night in June 2002, while Butler hosted a big "alibi party" so he couldn't be implicated, Mendiola and his crew broke into Scuzz's house. Scuzz and his girlfriend, Crystal Stone, didn't hear anything until a group of armed men with shaved heads and goatees kicked open their bedroom door and began yelling in a combination of English and Spanish. Crystal, who was nude, was bound with white plastic zip ties and gagged with tape, while Scuzz was forced to reveal the location of his drugs and cash. After robbing Scuzz, the men let him go. Returning to Spokane, they divided the spoils with Butler and made plans to return later to finish the job.
Nate's crew, meanwhile, was rattled. Nobody knew what to make of the robbery, which only added to the overall para-noia. "We didn't know it was Butler," says Topher. "We thought it must be some dudes from out of town. All kinds of rumors were going around." The day after the robbery, Scuzz moved, and he began sleeping with a Tech 9 under his pillow.
Later that summer, Nate broke both of his arms in a dirt-bike accident and moved in with Buffy. "That was a bad time," she recalls. "Nate's arms were in casts. I was recovering from my surgery." She fluffs her breasts as a visual aid. "And my cat Titty Bar Bob had broken his back, and he got addicted to these painkillers. He'd crawl up the sides of the wall to get to them. It was a weird summer."
Back in Spokane, Mendiola was growing angry with his client. Butler had yet to pay the agreed-upon advance and kept providing bad information. He insisted that Scuzz had not moved (when a simple surveillance run quickly proved otherwise) and gave Mendiola a crude drawing of a house that was supposed to be Nate's.
Nobody knows for certain what happened on October 11th, when Mendiola and his men met Butler at a campground near Hayden Lake. Butler planned to show the men a remote location to dispose of the bodies. But at some point, his contrived "gangsta" persona apparently rubbed this group of actual gangsters the wrong way. In what police describe as a dispute over money, Mendiola turned on Butler. As his brother and friends watched, shocked, he began choking the undersized twenty-year-old, who begged for mercy. Mendiola continued choking him until blood came out of his mouth and nose. After Butler was dead, Mendiola slashed his throat repeatedly with his knife, hoping to cover any finger-prints. Leaving Butler's body in the woods, the men proceeded to one of his safe houses and stole sixty pounds of marijuana.
A month later, a woodcutter discovered Butler's body. "Once they found the body," says Detective Morgan, "it was like, 'Holy shit. It's not just kids out here smoking dope and buying Escalades and boats. There's a dead guy out here.'" Investigators quickly tracked down Mendiola, after discovering his number in Butler's cell phone; the crew was arrested in March 2003. Police also began running surveillance on Nate's crew.
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