Welcome to Pine County

Some people think crack and furniture-stripping fumes made Chuck Strobel crazy. But it was the rural peace and quiet that drove him over the edge.

The SWAT team found Fett, 38, dead in the road outside the suspect's trailer. He'd been shot in the shoulder and the head. Koza and other witnesses said an argument had broken out while Fett was discussing the purchase of a trailer from Padden.

"It was a beef between a couple of drunks, metro-area transplants," says Pitzen. "We arrested Padden in the woods about a mile away. I'd like to say that kind of thing is unheard of up here, but unfortunately it isn't. That's why we've put together the SWAT team." Padden has been charged with second-degree murder.

According to Johnson, city-transplant criminals most often use rural areas like Pine County to establish safe houses where they hide out and store drugs for major transactions. "Sometimes they conduct their business up here, but more often their activities are in the city and this is a retreat. Are they successful? Well, let's put it this way. I only hear about the unsuccessful ones."

Craig Bares

Perhaps the most flamboyantly unsuccessful operation in Pine County history was a joint venture between a Chicago branch of the Latin Kings and members of the Pluff clan of St. Paul's East Side. Their alliance was forged in 1988, when Cindy Pluff, who'd run away from home at 16 to become a prostitute, met a Colombian cocaine dealer in Las Vegas. He introduced her to his Chicago distributor, Jose Rodriguez, a.k.a. "Cabeza," a reference to the brainy way Rodriguez organized the cocaine trade on that city's North Side.

Rodriguez lost his cabeza over Cindy Pluff. They moved in together, and his monthly trade with the Colombians increased substantially. Soon Cindy had become the major Twin Cities distributor of Colombia's biggest cash crop. By 1989 the Pluff family home on East Magnolia Street in St. Paul was headquarters for a family-owned-and-operated cocaine business.

Cindy continued to live in Chicago with Cabeza, but the stress and strain of everyday life in the cocaine trade made them yearn for some place remote to chill. With that in mind, Cindy purchased an old farmhouse on 55 wooded acres on Pine County Road 32. Her father, Kenneth Pluff Sr., was dispatched to the hinterlands as caretaker. Cindy, Cabeza, and certain upper-echelon members of the Latin Kings called the place their safe house. They began spending long weekends there.

One Saturday afternoon shortly after they began frequenting the safe house, Cabeza was delivered unconscious to the emergency room of the Sandstone, Minnesota, hospital. He died a few hours later from acute cocaine poisoning. His buddy Rudy Martinez emerged as kingpin of the operation. Soon he and Cindy were lovers, an affair Martinez would live to regret.

"We didn't know what was going on when they first started coming here," says former Sheriff Don Faulkner, "but they did get our attention. The death of Mr. Rodriguez was the first major incident, but there were many others."

Opinions vary on when local residents realized they had something extraordinary in their midst. It might have been Thanksgiving Day, 1989, when the neighbors down the road, Elmer and Shirley Ellgren, heard a terrible ruckus at the Pluff farm. "It sounded like an invasion or something," says Shirley Ellgren.

Actually, it was the ritual slaughter of the Thanksgiving bird, Latin Kings style, an event that was memorialized on videotape and would later be scrutinized by the police. Rudy Martinez dispatched the turkey, a huge tom, with a quick burst from an AK-47 assault rifle, then celebrated the kill by firing a few hundred rounds into the air. "I guess I can see why the Elmers, or whatever their names are, might have been upset," Martinez later acknowledged.

Martinez also confesses to being chagrined about another incident. It was deer-hunting season, and one sunny afternoon Elmer Ellgren headed for the blind he'd built in a tree on his property, his old lever-action 30-30 over his shoulder. When he arrived, the blind was occupied. Up in Ellgren's tree was a young man with a jet-black Zapata mustach, and an AK-47 cradled in his arms. Outgunned but undaunted, Ellgren demanded to know what was going on.

Angry words were exchanged, but not fully understood, because Ellgren spoke the rural Minnesota vernacular while the erstwhile hunter expressed himself in a mixture of Spanish and street lingo. Eventually the point was made, mostly by gesture, and the intruder trudged off toward the adjoining Pluff acreage, exactly where Ellgren thought he'd come from.

By late 1990 hundreds of complaints about the goings-on at the Pluff farm had been logged at the Pine County sheriff's office. The main sources of annoyance were noise, gunfire, and a pack of marauding dogs living on the property. But neighbors had also become suspicious of Ken Pluff's ostentatious displays of wealth. He routinely dropped hundreds of dollars on pull tabs at a bar in Duxbury, a few miles from the farm. His visitors from Chicago also patronized area bars, where they flashed weapons and made thinly-veiled allusions to their mysterious but lucrative trade.

"If I was a drug dealer I'd keep a low profile," says Shirley Ellgren, a feisty lady in her 70s, "but they were just obnoxious. You wouldn't believe the loud music, the gunfire, the cars coming and going. And boy did they party--nonstop."

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