Nickel- and Dime-Bagged

Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden is proud of his box.

His box, a solid two-foot-by-two-foot cube, is a smorgasbord of drugs; clear plastic baggies loaded with pot, bundles of psilocybin mushrooms and tiny envelopes of cocaine.

"Even got some black-tar heroin," the sheriff says, disgust clinging to his voice.

The box is filled with the loot from one of the largest drug raids in Larimer County history. On August 23, Alderden led ten agencies and more than 150 officers who snuffed the 25th annual Colorado Invitational (better known as the Bongathon), a smokeout of epic proportions.

More than 2,000 hemp fans attended this year's event on a 35-acre ranch near Red Feather Lakes that belongs to Michael Davis of Lakewood. The weekend-long extravaganza, its organizers and attendees argue, was a private party cut short by over-zealous cops who still haven't received word from the frontlines that the war on drugs is over. "There were cops with their dogs running through, screaming, 'Pack your shit and go home,'" says Matt Zeisler, one of eighteen people who spent the weekend in the clink, charged with felony drug possession. "It was total delirium."

But the delirium began long before the first joint was sparked.

On August 20, the day that the Bongathon was to begin, Sheriff Alderden went to Larimer County court and requested an injunction to kill the party. Alderden argued that the thirty to forty portable toilets that had reportedly been delivered on flatbed trucks to Davis's Elk Meadows Ranch indicated a gathering of gargantuan size. And, he said, neighbors had complained mightily about previous Bongathons, which had flooded the area with people. Davis, along with co-organizer Christopher Lopez of Littleton, also appeared at the courthouse, where they acknowledged that a party was in the works but that everything was cool: All attendees had to be over 21 and in possession of a personal invitation. The county judge agreed with Davis's right to hold a private party, no matter what the number of guests. If Alderden wanted to stop the shindig, the judge said, he'd better prove it was open to the public.

"He left it to the discretion of the sheriff's office," Alderden says, "and we acted on that."

That night, Alderden dispatched three undercover officers to the front gates of Davis's ranch. Two officers were in their twenties; the third was in his fifties. Alderden waited in a squad car two miles down the road while his scouts got cozy with strangers. Within thirty minutes -- and after allegedly paying $40 per person at the door, which police say proved it was a public party -- Alderden says the trio of narcs found themselves grooving at what could have been an open-air Grateful Dead concert. Bands jammed from a stage, hippies dozed in bivouacs, and the undercover officers were, allegedly, offered hits of pot from a bong and helpfully advised that "the LSD will be here in the morning."

The three officers viewed the cordial offerings as illegal and quickly retreated to Alderden's squad car. What's more, they reported that alcohol was being sold from a booth near the stage and that their admission fee included "all the beer they could drink."

The distribution of alcohol without a license alone was enough to shut down the Bongathon, Alderden says. "The question was, do we do it when we have 2,000 drunk and stoned people in the dark, or do we wait until morning, when we have at least a semi-sober crowd to deal with?"

Alderden rushed back to his office and informed every enforcement agency throughout Weld and Larimer counties. "We didn't know how many people would respond until morning. It's a real remote area -- it's an hour and a half from town."

Meanwhile, revelers like Zeisler and his wife were unaware that eager cops were setting their traps. As night fell, a steady stream of cars, trucks and RVs entered the ranch. Zeisler, who is 29, works as a chef in a Washington Park restaurant and moonlights as a bartender. He and his wife were enjoying their only summer vacation. "I told my mom we were going camping," he says.

Zeisler picked up the free invitation through friends in the restaurant biz. Each year the underground invitations are printed and dispersed on the same basis and theory that dictate most party invitations: You invite people who are fun. Zeisler's laminated ticket, the size of a playing card, sported a rainbow and an identification number. At the ranch entrance, Zeisler says, doormen matched the ticket number to a master list to ensure its authenticity. Then he and his wife were ushered in past a sign posting the weekend's only rules: "No weapons, guns, or dogs without leashes." But Zeisler noticed that security was more lax than it had been two years earlier, when he attended his first Bongathon.

"It just wasn't as professional this year," he says.

That night, the Zeislers drove their red Ford Ranger pickup onto Elk Meadows Ranch, pitched a tent with about thirty other campers and set up for a good time. Zeisler smoked a little weed, listened to a parade of bands and drank some booze. He and his wife hit their sleeping bags at about 4 a.m.; he woke up four hours later, when his wife shook him and said, "You'd better check this out."

Alderden's forces had surrounded the festival just after 8 a.m. and closed in on the campers, most of whom were still sleeping. When unimpeded officers in riot gear and their dogs descended from the high plains and into the valley of the party, an officer announced on a p.a. system: "You have five minutes to leave."

Once the order was issued, drugs found their way into the toilets, and as those filled up, others simply tossed their baggies to the ground. Organizers Davis and Lopez were cuffed and plunked into a makeshift holding cell at the top of a hill. Of the 2,000 sleepy stoners in attendance, only 42 were cited. Of those, eighteen were charged with felonies for possession of hard drugs; the rest were released on the spot after being cited for minimal infractions such as paraphernalia possession.

As the partyers peacefully left the ranch on the same road on which they came in, Alderden's army searched every tenth car, police say. With the line of traffic slinking along, holders had plenty of time to pitch their drugs out the window. Zeisler chanced it, though, and lost.

When the cops searched his truck, they found his bong and less than an ounce of pot. They also found mushrooms. Then they cuffed him and sent him to a holding cell in the county jail. His wife was released. By Monday, he was tossed in with the general population. "I was in there with murderers, molesters and rapists," he says.

Zeisler says the boastful cops taunted him and the others by saying, "Looks like I'm going to be doing mushrooms tonight!" and "I'm going to look good in that RV when it goes on auction."

Now Zeisler will have to wait until an October 12 court date to learn his fate.

"I'm not sure how this case is going to be deposed," says Zeisler's attorney, Daniel Wilson of Denver. "But I'd be surprised if it goes to trial."

A lack of evidence has already forced Daniel Quinn, chief deputy district attorney of Larimer County, to drop the charges against at least six people, including Davis and Lopez. Although Quinn won't discuss specific aspects of the case, he did say, "It's my understanding that the Larimer County Sheriff's Department intends to continue investigating this case."

Though Alderden has no idea how much his box o' booty is worth on the streets, he does know one thing: A low-ball estimate of his raid cost taxpayers at least $40,000. In other words, almost $1,000 per arrest or citation.

"The drug seizure wasn't the issue," he maintains. "It was getting these people out of our county and letting them know they aren't welcome here."

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Justin Berton

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