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.

What residents didn't know was that the Pine County sheriff's office had become part of a multi-agency task force that was planning a major bust at the Pluff farm and elsewhere. On January 19, 1991, simultaneous raids were carried out at the Pluff home in St. Paul, a stash house on Chicago's North Side, and the farm. Officers from the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, the Treasury Department, the state Highway Patrol, and the Pine County sheriff's office--25 law-enforcement officers in all--went into the Pluff farm.

"Oh, you should have seen it," says Mrs. Ellgren. "They came with helicopters, cars with their lights flashing, men with flak jackets and big guns. It was wonderful. It was just like Miami Vice!"

More than 30 people were arrested in the three raids. The number who were willing to testify in return for plea bargains astounded DEA agents. "That family in Minnesota kind of hung together and said to hell with everybody else," says a Chicago-based agent.

Craig Bares

In return for their cooperation, all the Pluffs but Cindy received sentences of less than three years. At last report Ken Pluff Sr. had done his relatively short stretch in prison and was back at the farm, where he was keeping a low profile. Reached in prison in Chicago, Rudy Martinez professed no ill will toward his ex-lover. "We could've been a lot cooler," he admitted. "We didn't think people would take notice. It seemed like we were all alone up there."

As the Pluff family saga built to a crescendo, Charles Strobel and his girlfriend Diane Roy were beginning to yearn for rural solitude. According to his fellow antique dealers, Strobel was a shy, gentle person, and a meticulous craftsman. He smoked marijuana constantly, but Roy claims he never used crack or other drugs when they lived in Minneapolis.

The couple bought and sold large furniture, and Strobel restored many of the pieces himself. "He was an artist," says a manager at the Cobblestone Antique co-op in Minneapolis, where Strobel and Roy had a booth. "It takes talent to restore furniture."

It also takes methylene chloride, the key ingredient in furniture stripper. Thus, in addition to copious amounts of marijuana and the usual urban cocktail of carbon monoxide, benzene fugitives, secondary formaldehyde, arsenic, chloroform, and on down the EPA list of ubiquitous air pollutants, Strobel was inhaling one of the most lethal of all industrial chemicals.

An eight-hour average of 100 parts per million of methylene chloride is the maximum exposure a human being can tolerate without sustaining severe harm. Since its odor threshold is 300 parts per million, if you smell it it's too late. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, the only ways to provide protection from the chemical are very well-ventilated workspaces or full-face breathing masks with their own air supply. The lungs, liver, kidney, and brain are the primary target organs of volatilized methylene chloride. Symptoms of acute exposure include giddiness, confusion, and delirium. Symptoms of chronic exposure are imperfectly understood, but grave.

In 1992, Diane Roy purchased an old house on 20 acres in Pine County. At first she and Strobel stayed there together, but by 1994 Strobel was a permanent resident and Roy had become an infrequent visitor.

"I stopped going up there because he went nuts," she would later tell investigators. "It just wasn't working anymore. He'd started hitting me and abusing me. He'd never done that before. He was a good man. But he was drinking a lot, and doing drugs."

During a visit she made in the autumn of 1995, Roy noticed that Strobel had installed heavy duty doors with steel frames. The windows were nailed shut. Valuable items Roy was storing in the house gradually disappeared. Strobel said they'd been stolen. "He was always talking about thieves," Roy explained. "He said people were coming around to rob him. Then he started accusing me of robbing him, and I hadn't even been up there."

Strobel had placed video cameras in several rooms, and in a pole barn he'd erected. When she inquired about two large holes in an interior wall, apparently made by shotgun blasts, he made another vague reference to thieves.

In January 1996, Strobel accused Roy of helping the Hell's Angels rob him. "He said I was the one who gave them the keys to the place," she told investigators. "I think he's gone, you know, paranoid."

Early in the morning of February 23--three days after begging deputies to rid his house of imaginary robbers--Chuck Strobel called the Pine County sheriff's department again. He was in his usual state of extreme agitation. He'd spotted several bikers prowling around his yard. They'd driven up in a large, four-door vehicle.

"Keep him on the line, and tell him not to have any weapons when we get there," Deputy Pitzen instructed the dispatcher. "Tell him everything is cool. Just wait for us, then come out in the yard unarmed." A state Highway Patrol sergeant named Thomas Ceiluch offered to join Pitzen and Deputy Jared Rosati for backup.

The moment the officers arrived it was clear that no one had preceded them to the property. Fresh snow had fallen, and there were no tire tracks or footprints. "Chuck came running out toward us," says Pitzen. "He was pointing at Tom Ceiluch, and yelling, 'Good, you finally got him! Let me see who he is!' As near as I could tell he thought that Tom was one of the Hell's Angels who were tunneling into his house, and we'd arrested him."

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