Long time, no see, says DA of pot dealer 22 years on lam

GALLATIN–After more than two decades of successfully eluding the law, a convicted felon’s cover was blown in Oregon last week by the lure of government benefits.

John Franklin Forbis, 72, formerly of Gallatin, was convicted during a jury trial in Columbia County Court before Judge John Leaman in August 1992 of first degree criminal possession of marijuana, a class C felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

But Mr. Forbis decided to forego his own trial, jumped bail and slipped below the radar for the next 22 years.

He was gone but not forgotten by district attorney at the time, Paul Czajka, who unfortunately for Mr. Forbis was elected to that position again in November 2011 after 17 years behind the bench as county judge.

DA Czajka told The Columbia Paper this week that Mr. Forbis, then 50, initially came to the attention of authorities because of the odor generated by the merchandise in which he dealt. An Elizaville man came upon the remote property at 366 Church Road, a short distance from the Taconic State Parkway as the crow flies, and after getting a whiff of the place, reported it to State Police.

An undercover agent confirmed the nature of the smell. Based upon that olfactory evidence and subsequent surveillance of the spot, DA Czajka secured a search warrant, which State Police executed June 11, 1992.

Most notably among the stuff seized by police was about 850 pounds of pot.

Along with power hand tools, $750, an airline ticket, a passport, notebooks, padlocks, plastic bags, a heat sealer, a scale, fans and dehumidifiers—police seized a tank-type garden sprayer, typically used for applying pesticide or fertilizer to lawns or gardens and an empty bottle of Captain Morgan spiced rum.

Mr. Forbis apparently infused his product with a little extra zing by lacing it with rum applied via garden sprayer, according to the DA, who noted that Mr. Forbis did not grow the greenery in Gallatin, but had it flown in from parts unknown and airdropped in an open field, where he retrieved it for processing in his garage.

According to documents provided by the DA, while police were executing the search warrant that morning, a State Police investigator asked Mr. Forbis if he knew what was in the garage, to which Mr. Forbis replied, “I’m just visiting.” When the investigator asked him if he knew where the key was so they didn’t have to break down the door, Mr. Forbis produced it from a string he wore around his neck.

Police took Mr. Forbis into custody at the time of the search on June 11. He was indicted by a grand jury on June 16 and was arraigned June 17. During his arraignment, bail was set at $150,000 cash or bond. He posted the bond and was released the same day.

Sometime between then and August 4 of that year when he was supposed to make a return court appearance, Mr. Forbis disappeared. His bail was forfeited and deposited in the county’s general fund. A warrant was issued for his arrest and his trial went forward without him. He was represented by the law firm of Gerstanzang and O’Hern, who he retained while he was in jail.

Asked why he would go to the expense of hiring lawyers if he was going to flee, the DA said, “Consider that if he had been acquitted we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”

Police theorized at the time that Mr. Forbis was an employee in a major operation in terms of money and that his employer paid the attorneys and arranged for bail, the DA said. The case was tried and won by then Assistant District Attorney Beth Cozzolino.

Judge Leaman sentenced Mr. Forbis to 5 to 15 years in prison in absentia, .

Authorities were advised by an inmate informant at the time that Mr. Forbis told him he had another passport and planned to use it. The passport seized during the search had stamps denoting his travels in many countries including in Asia, said DA Czajka, adding, “We assumed he left the country.”

Mr. Czajka said when he became DA again in January 2012, he had a meeting with State Police Major Michael Kopy. In speaking about their respective expectations, the DA said he asked the major to renew efforts to find Mr. Forbis.

The Sheriff’s Office in Lane County, OR, took Mr. Forbis into custody as a fugitive from Columbia County justice, October 30 after he dropped his alias and used his real name to apply for Social Security benefits.

Lane County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Carrie Carver said by phone this week that deputies found Mr. Forbis at the camping trailer in which he lived on the 90,000 block of Deadwood Creek Road, in Deadwood, OR, where they believe he had been holed up for the last 20 years.

The sergeant put out a press release saying Mr. Forbis had been “involved with smuggling drugs from Texas to New York via airplane.”

Sgt. Carver could not provide any information about how Mr. Forbis was making a living or whether he had a family, but described the place where he lived as “off-the-beaten-path” where “it was not hard to tuck yourself up into the woods.”

Mr. Forbis is currently lodged in the Lane County Jail, where his has waived extradition. The DA said he is making arrangements to have Mr. Forbis brought back here so he can begin serving his prison sentence.

Mr. Czajka said one of the officers who interviewed Mr. Forbis told him Mr. Forbis said he had “taken a chance” on applying for Social Security because he had recently become ill. Mr. Forbis told the officer, he hoped authorities had forgotten about him.

“I’m pleasantly surprised that he’s been found,” said the DA, adding, “not so much because he should be punished,” but to send a message to other criminals, that the DA, State Police and the Sheriff’s Office “never forget.”

To contact Diane Valden email .

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