Robert "Buddha" Juan outside his home in Humboldt County in… (Sam Quinones, Los Angeles…)
To hear Robert "Buddha" Juan tell it, Lost Paradise Land Corp. was a modern-day hippie's last chance at the California dream.
Spread over 1,000 acres of mountainous Humboldt County backcountry, it was a place where counterculture settlers could buy land for minimal cash and dispense with banks, credit checks, brokers, permits or lawyers. For the roughly 40 people who, beginning in 2004, bought a stake in the corporation, "Buddhaville" — as it came to be known — was an off-the-grid homestead.
"It was our 40 acres and a mule," said Robert Brunet, who bought into the property.
Buddhaville denizens graded properties, built houses and installed generators. Most stayed out of each other's business, Juan said, but many grew Northern California's top cash crop: marijuana.
Juan said he wasn't about to tell anyone to stop. He figured that people with medical marijuana cards could do as they pleased.
At least that's what he thought until the morning of June 24, 2008. That's when the skies started buzzing with surveillance aircraft and an army of 450 law officers stormed the settlement and hauled off 10,000 marijuana plants, $160,000 in cash and 30 firearms. Despite Juan's claims that Lost Paradise Land Corp. was a quirky — and maybe even harebrained — bid to leverage land ownership, state and federal authorities viewed the compact as evidence of a large-scale criminal enterprise with Juan as its kingpin.
"This is not a medical marijuana operation or a group of people growing for their personal use," an FBI spokesman said at the start of Operation Southern Sweep. "It's a large-scale, for-profit commercial business. The targets of our investigation are reaping huge profits while contributing to the crime and violence oppressing communities across the state."
In a region where pot is not only tolerated but seen by some as a pillar of the economy, residents are still arguing over whether the Buddhaville settlers were criminals or victims of federal drug policy. They do agree that the story of Lost Paradise Land Corp. provides a glimpse into Northern California's pot-growing culture, its independent characters and its quirky underground economy.
"Humboldt breeds the modern-day pioneer," said Charlie Tripodi, a local real estate agent. "It's the ability to stand on your deck and scream at the top of your lungs and not be arrested. That's attracted a lot of free-thinkers. They were people uneducated in real estate. Buddhaville was a combination of it all."
Today, Juan, 39, sits in a federal prison cell in Louisiana, and Buddhaville's main entrance is padlocked. Though the majority of Buddhaville's residents were not charged with a crime — the last of 10 defendants was sentenced this summer — all have lost everything they paid into the corporation.
Juan grew up in Simi Valley. After high school, he moved to Humboldt County, where his hippie father had homesteaded logged land since 1972. Juan was busted for growing indoor marijuana in 1999, fathered a daughter, learned construction trades and flipped a few properties in southern Humboldt as real estate heated up.
In 2003 he met a logger named Eddie Mendes, who offered him depleted timberland for sale.
Southern Humboldt residents remember Juan approaching others in 2003 and 2004 about buying into Mendes' acres.
It was a strange deal. People could buy in and make small monthly payments. But they wouldn't get title to their land until they all paid off their properties.
The Buddhaville deal was reviewed "all around the law offices of southern Humboldt; the lawyers all said, 'This is crazy,' " said Charley Custer, a local radio host and member of the Humboldt Medical Marijuana Advisory Panel. But there were buyers because "it was a way for kids to get onto the land and start to achieve some measure of a dream of homesteading."
At first, 20 people bought in. Papers were drawn up forming Lost Paradise Land Corp. with Juan as president, though he says he never asked for the job or signed any document.
A couple of years later, the Barnums, a local timber family, offered a thousand adjacent acres on similar terms. More people bought in, Juan said; no one seems to know exactly how many. Some bought, then sold to others.
Many had medical marijuana cards. Most made a $32,000 down payment over two years, then $1,600 a month, Juan said.
Meanwhile, each buyer lived an isolated life, barely acknowledging neighbors, say those who lived there. Residents never cooperated enough to even clear a main access road or buy a firetruck. When community meetings were scheduled, few attended.
Then, in early June 2008, Humboldt's marijuana world buzzed with rumors of a coming raid.
By coincidence, Operation Southern Sweep began amid a series of lightning-sparked forest fires that raged across Northern California that summer. The sight of a caravan of unmarked sedans and SUVs streaming toward Buddhaville made an impression on those who were battling the flames.