Nate Norman was two electronically locked doors away from an interview room in the Bonner County Jail Sunday evening, but through the intervening panels of bulletproof glass, he was smiling and waving as if he is just that nice kid from down the street.
The 21-year-old Norman was about 45 hours away from being sentenced to federal prison as a drug trafficker. He figured he was facing 10 to 12 years, although his family expected far less. He was trying to get ready for it. Yet he still vibrated with the eager grin and jazzed body language of someone who had just had an excellent adventure and was happy to talk about it.
There were toys, cars, parties all fueled by $1.3 million Norman guesses he earned and spent in less than two years.
His almost butterfly sense of floating on the sweet nectar of adventure hit the windshield of the federal justice system Tuesday afternoon when U.S. District Court Judge Edward Lodge delivered a sentence that sent a jolt through a Coeur d’Alene court room filled with Norman’s family members.
“I sentence you to 12 years,” Lodge said.
Heads snapped back in waves in four solidly filled rows of seats. There were groans. Gasps. Hands flew to cover mouths, fists were clenched in shock and anger.
Norman was among eight co-defendants to be sentenced Monday and Tuesday for involvement in a smuggling ring police believe brought in 17,000 pounds of marijuana and generated $38 million in cash. The other seven received sentences ranging from 24 to 46 months. Norman has been identified in federal grand jury indictments as the ringleader. Two-dozen people in all have been indicted.
Out of everything he talked about in a far-ranging jail interview Sunday, being called a ringleader was among the hardest to deal with, Norman said.
“I’m no kingpin. I never told anybody what to do,” he said.
The whole thing started with him and his friends stumbling into more marijuana and cash than they knew what to do with.
“Nate and most of these guys are as naïve as can be,” Idaho State Police investigator Terry Morgan, one of the agents who has worked the case for nearly three years, said Tuesday evening. Morgan said he believes the smuggling ring started as an adventure.
But then it grew. A few pounds of marijuana became tons. A few thousand dollars became millions.
His first trip across the border in September 2001 was almost a lark, Norman said. He and a friend had read an article in High Times magazine that cheap, high-powered marijuana could be had in Canada. Norman and the friend looked at a map and realized the border was only about an hour away, he said. They drove up, parked near some farm fields and walked across in broad daylight until they saw a highway sign with speeds posted in kilometers per hour. They walked back to their car, drove across the border and, in the town of Creston, they met a guy smoking a joint out in the middle of the street.
“We said we were Americans and asked if he would sell us some pot,” Norman said.
The next weekend they purchased a pound for $1,600. They sold it for enough money to buy two pounds. Two became four, four became eight.
“All of a sudden, in about four months, we had $100,000 to $150,000 saved up. Holy Moly!” Norman said. “All my friends knew about it. Everybody wanted to do it and make some money. I never went out and recruited anybody.”
But, Morgan said, “There is no doubt Nate controlled the money. Nate told them when they were going to make runs. Nate was the boss.”
Norman, during the jail interview, spoke with the frankness of a young man who transformed from a high-schooler with bad grades and a limited future into a blissed-out stoner who stumbled onto a river of free weed, hockey bags full of cash and the adrenaline rush of nighttime cat-and-mouse games with the Border Patrol.
It was fun, he said. Honestly, he said, it was a rush.
“I tell you, it’s not the drug that is addicting. It’s not the money that’s addicting,” Norman said. “It’s the adrenaline rush; walking through the woods at night. It’s the thrill that is addicting.
“But there is no way I would do the same thing over. It is not worth it,” Norman said.
He was even more pointed Tuesday during tearful remarks to Lodge and family members. He doesn’t want either of his two younger brothers to see drug use or drug smuggling as some grand adventure and thus repeat the mistake he made, Norman said.
He told Lodge and his family his actions did hurt the people he loves.
“I disgraced you guys,” he said to his parents, “and let you down. I want to say I’m sorry, but also I want to thank you; because at no time in this whole thing did any of you ever turn your back on me.”
Summing up the broken trust, the long separation, Norman said, “There’s nothing I wouldn’t give to get those things back again.”
Morgan and other investigators believe Norman and at least some of his co-defendants are lucky to be alive.
The smuggling operation only came to light after the body of 20-year-old Brendan Butler – who had been strangled and then had his throat sliced open – was discovered in November 2002 on a dirt road along the eastern side of Hayden Lake.
Kootenai County Sheriff’s detectives investigating the death soon concluded that Butler was also running a marijuana smuggling ring and, believing he was losing business to Norman’s group, hired a crew from Southern California to rough-up and scare – and possibly murder – Norman and another member of the group, Ben Scozzaro.
At the time Butler’s body was discovered, Norman and his friends were completely off police radar. Morgan, a Vietnam combat veteran, said he is impressed with the almost military discipline and organization exhibited during smuggling runs.
The group had scout cars, camouflage, contingency plans and even left emergency caches of food and first-aid supplies along trails they used most often.
And, Norman said, they weren’t alone in the woods.
During one nighttime trek, he said, the file of runners suddenly heard crunching noises in the bushes. They froze. Silently, they crouched and hid. The rustling noises kept coming. Just as the tension was peaking, they saw the shapes of three young men – strapped into backpacks – running through the darkness.
“Everybody does it,” Norman said. “But in the long run it’s not worth it. People do get hurt, emotionally hurt. Brendan Butler got killed. That’s when it totally hit me this is a serious business.”