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.

On February 20, 1996, the Pine County sheriff's office received a call from a man who identified himself as Chuck Strobel. He said that there were intruders on his property. "Hurry," he implored the desk officer. "They're in the house right now!"

His plea inspired no commensurate sense of urgency at the sheriff's office. Strobel had reported burglaries in progress on many other occasions, and they'd all turned out to be false alarms. Deputies had once responded to a claim that Martians had landed in his yard and were peeking in the window. The only call from the Strobel residence that turned out to have a factual basis had come earlier that year, when Strobel himself had been arrested for assault on a complaint by his girlfriend.

A former Minneapolis resident, Strobel had been living in an old house on 20 acres in a remote area south of Hinckley for the past four years. He was an antique dealer who specialized in restoring furniture. Although he'd taken great pains to isolate himself, he seemed to be spooked by being alone. He informed the officers who responded to one of his early calls that he'd set "man-traps" consisting of spring-loaded shotguns around his property, and that he was prepared to shoot anyone who tried to enter his house forcibly. Nevertheless, deputies Jared Rosati and Steven Ovick were dispatched to check out the latest invasion of Strobel's privacy.

Strobel, agitated and babbling, met them in the yard. He said that four Hell's Angels had broken into his house. Since he'd earlier claimed that these same bikers had obtained copies of his keys and were making themselves at home in his absence, the deputies were skeptical. They asked why the intruders hadn't just opened the door and walked in. Strobel couldn't answer that question, but he was sure they were robbing him blind at that very moment. He explained that they'd tunneled into the basement, then had managed to sneak up to the second floor past him and his dog before he heard them stomping around up there.

Deputy Rosati noticed a handgun tucked into Strobel's belt. "We'll go in and check it out," he said, "but give me that pistol first." Strobel handed over the weapon, then led the officers on a tour of the premises. There was nobody inside, nor was there any sign of forced entry. The last room they approached was Strobel's bedroom.

"He told our officers to stay the hell out of there," says Lt. Robert Johnson, an investigator with the Pine County Sheriff's Department until his recent retirement. "That kind of piqued their interest, but they really had no right to go in if he didn't want them to."

The officers terminated what was obviously a fruitless search for intruders. "The next time you call us, don't be carrying any weapons when we arrive," said Rosati. "Understand?"

Murder in Minneapolis may make the front page of the New York Times, but rural Minnesota is where the crime rate has really climbed in recent years. Between 1990 and 1995--the last year for which figures are available--total "Part I" (violent) crimes reported by rural sheriff's departments increased 12 percent, while Minneapolis recorded a tiny decrease. Pine County, 80 miles north of the Twin Cities, has seen more than its share of criminal activity. Too far away to function as a bedroom community and too desolate for tourism, Pine County seems to strike some metro thugs as the ideal location to avoid scrutiny.

"We're getting a different type up here now," says Johnson. He's referring to city-bred criminals who often combine a high level of sophistication about their line of endeavor with some naive expectations concerning life in rural Minnesota.

Maybe it's the "portal zones" that fool them. Dense forest borders the gravel roads of rural Pine County, but it's just that quarter mile of illusion the loggers leave after they haul the woods away to make paper. Nevertheless, driving through a gauntlet of thick forest miles from the nearest town seems to foster fantasies of total isolation among criminally inclined ex-urbanites.

Some adopt a reclusive lifestyle that has its own way of drawing the neighbors' attention. Others act as if they are on another planet when in reality their lifestyle makes them far more visible than they would ever be in a city. Either way they are armed and dangerous.

In mid-October, an outdoor marijuana-growing operation was discovered in rural Pine County. "I can't give you the suspect's name because we haven't picked him up yet," says Deputy Thomas Pitzen. "I can tell you he's a biker-gang member, and a white supremacist. He didn't have any of the kind of monitoring equipment we often run into up here, but he was certainly well armed. We discovered a shooting range and lots of expended shells on the property."

According to Pitzen, several methamphetamine factories have been busted in Pine County in the past few years, and recently two North Minneapolis-based burglars were arrested there. "They were responsible for at least 70 burglaries up here, and as far south as Owatonna," he says.

On October 24, Pitzen was part of an eight-man SWAT team that responded to a report of a disturbance in Sturgeon Lake. A woman named Marlys Koza had called the sheriff to say that her boyfriend, Greg Padden, was fighting with a man named Randy Fett in the mobile home Padden and Koza shared. Moments later a second call came, this one from Fett's son, who said his father had been shot.

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."

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."

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.

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."

Rosati ordered Strobel to halt. In the dim dawn light the officers could see that Strobel had an electric cord with multiple plugs and a surge protector tied around his waist. He had a file in one hand and a knife in the other. When Pitzen told him to raise his hands, Rosati spotted a pistol tucked under the cord.

"We told you not to have any weapons," said Pitzen. "I'm going to pat you down now to make sure you don't have anything else." He found four shotgun shells and a bag of what looked like crack cocaine in Strobel's shirt pocket. "That's when we arrested him," he says. "We asked if the cocaine was his, and he just said, 'Yeah, it's mine.'"

The officers were about to drive a handcuffed Strobel off to Pine City when he asked if they would please put his dog in the house. "In other words," says Pitzen, "he invited us in." Barely inside, the officers spotted a bag of marijuana, a cooking spoon, and a homemade crack pipe. They secured the dog and headed for Pine City to process Strobel and get a search warrant.

Strobel seemed calm on the way. He volunteered that he'd had a bunch of buddies over the previous night to test his cocaine. It was a damning admission if true, but the deputies had their doubts due to the lack of tracks or footprints. When Diane Roy was later questioned she was asked whether Strobel might have had friends in to snort cocaine.

"What friends?" she replied. "He doesn't have any friends."

When the officers returned to the house with a search warrant, they discovered what Strobel had been telling them about in his own strange way for two years. His place was a veritable treasure trove of familiar controlled substances, scattered amid the less familiar paraphernalia of chemically induced paranoia. The search proceeded cautiously. "We were worried about all those spring guns and booby traps he'd been telling us about," says Pitzen.

The smell of weed permeated the house so thoroughly that a drug-sniffing dog had to be pulled away from the heat ducts and guided into more promising venues.

There were two locked safes. One contained a small bag of powder cocaine and reams of video-surveillance tape. The other held $4,200 in cash and 80 pounds of marijuana. Between that and a stash in the bedroom the cops found a total of 218 pounds of pot.

Shotgun holes were blasted through the walls and the door of a closet. The officers seized more than 20 guns, ranging in size from a .22-caliber two-shot derringer to a .375-caliber Magnum rifle suitable for hunting elephants. They also found a Safe House Wireless Security Scanner, three surveillance cameras and various viewing devices.

Investigators were able to determine that Strobel hadn't slept for more than 72 hours when he was arrested. Dozens of pills including codeine and various uppers were seized during the search. So were the untagged pelts of several animals.

Keys, door locks, and tumblers were piled on a table, and there were signs that the locks had been changed many times. "Maybe he wanted to get caught," Pitzen says. "Either that or he just lost track of who he was talking to."

Strobel was charged with nine counts of controlled-substance violations and four counts based on his possession of wild-animal pelts. In return for his plea of guilty to one count of possession of marijuana with intent to sell, all the other charges were dropped. On October 31, 1996, he received a 38-month sentence with a recommendation that he be considered for a program that would put him on the street in less than two years.

One theory that was kicked around the squad room for a while concerned the possibility that Strobel was indeed connected to the Hell's Angels, and was holding up the orderly flow of marijuana from Point A to Point B in that organization's distribution chain. Thus, it was theorized, he had come to think of prison as his best option, a kind of safe house away from the safe house.

"I don't think he was connected to anybody," says Johnson. "The Pluffs were different. They were part of a large organization. Strobel was more representative. He was a loner. That's the type we often see up here.

"Was he dangerous? Well, better than half the weapons he had were loaded, and there was some pretty high-test weaponry there. There was a high-quality night scope mounted on a 44 Desert Eagle, for example, and a pistol with a scope on it--that thing was so big and heavy, I don't see how a person could aim it unless you set it on something. He could have definitely shot through our vests.

"When we first locked him up, he told the jailer that he'd had our officers in his sights as they drove up his driveway. But he decided not to shoot for whatever reason. I guess he just drifted off into some other hallucination."

Johnson expects to see more cases like Strobel in the future. "We have individuals we're suspicious of right now," he says. "What's happening is they're getting hassled in the seven-county metro area, so they're moving up here where there's more space and less law enforcement. They buy a place like Strobel had where they can do their own counter-surveillance. They have better equipment than we do. We've gone to places where they have video cameras set up in the driveway 200 or 300 yards from the home. By the time we get to the yard they're out and running. You wonder what valuables someone who lives in a mobile home or a broken-down farmstead has to protect."

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