The man arrested at a Bel-Air mansion on charges of cultivating a $20-million forest of marijuana plants is a self-made scientist and cancer patient struggling to develop new strains of cannabis to help those suffering from painful chronic diseases, activists and family members said Wednesday.
Todd Patrick McCormick, who faces a federal charge of cultivation of marijuana, began smoking the drug as a teenager to quell the pain from a rare childhood cancer, his family said. In recent years, he has joined the radical front lines of the battle for medicinal marijuana use, experimenting with genetic engineering and clones of the plant to supply patients nationwide, marijuana use proponents say.
At the time of his arrest Tuesday evening by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, the 27-year-old Rhode Island native had received an advance to write a book, was planning to launch a magazine on the subject of marijuana cultivation and was a well-regarded cannabis expert who is interviewed on the current High Times magazine Web site, marijuana proponents said.
His arrest--which one county sheriff's official said was the largest indoor marijuana seizure the agency has ever made--outraged medicinal marijuana activists, who praised McCormick as an inspired martyr.
Authorities said McCormick, who grew marijuana plants in virtually every room of his five-story, fairy-tale-like mansion, appeared to be supplying marijuana to cannabis clubs throughout the state.
He was arrested after deputies found about 4,000 marijuana plants growing inside the Bel-Air castle with turrets and secret rooms, not far from the homes of actress Elizabeth Taylor and former President Ronald Reagan. McCormick had rented the mansion since February for $6,000 a month, friends say.
County authorities turned over the case to the U.S. attorney's office because of the large volume of marijuana involved and their belief that McCormick sold it to people in other states. He was in custody in lieu of $100,000 bail, and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Federal authorities also charged three others found at the home at the time of McCormick's arrest with cultivation of marijuana.
At a Wednesday news conference, Sheriff Sherman Block said that investigators received a tip about the massive marijuana operation while they were conducting a bust in the South Bay about five days ago.
"Much to the surprise of our people, when you got up on the hill . . . you could actually see [the plants] through the windows of the house," he said. "Marijuana was growing on the patio, in the yard and all over the place."
Block said 4,116 high-grade marijuana plants--with an estimated street value of $5,000 each--were individually tagged for their ultimate destinations and illuminated with an elaborate lighting system.
"It is a very, very significant seizure," Block said.
He added that McCormick told the arresting deputies he was using the plants to treat his own cancer. The sheriff, who has twice battled cancer himself, quipped: "Four thousands plants should make him very healthy."
Richard Cowan, former national director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said McCormick is a hero "for many people who suffer from the pain of disease . . . a real force of nature who has put his personal freedom on the line to develop new strains of marijuana for medicinal use.
"The fact that they are . . . treating him like a criminal is a sham," Cowan said. "Todd is one of most knowledgeable people in the area of cannabis in the world. His arrest and the loss of the plants he was cultivating is a tragedy."
McCormick's mother, Ann McCormick, said in a telephone interview from her home in Rhode Island that when her son was 2, doctors discovered he had histiocytosis X, a form of bone marrow cancer that required nine surgeries and extensive chemotherapy due to the continuous growth of tumors.
"We finally let Todd start smoking marijuana," she said. "His father and I felt that this benign herb was less dangerous than the harsh chemicals we had been allowing the doctors to pump through his veins. The doctors saved Todd's life, but the cannabis saved his health."
McCormick grew up with a fascination for the possibilities that marijuana smoking could bring to sufferers of pain such as himself, she said.
By the early 1990s, he had begun experimenting with various strains of the plant on the theory that one strain might work well for someone suffering with a brain tumor and another for an AIDS patient.
Soon afterward, he formed a series of cannabis supply clubs for people needing the drug.
"He pure-breeds plants," said Dennis Peron, director of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club. "He's an amazingly intelligent person and the kind of genetics he does, he needs a lot of plants. He isolates them and combines them to form newer and better strains."
In 1995, McCormick was arrested in Ohio while en route to Rhode Island with 30 pounds of home-grown marijuana to begin such a club in his hometown of Providence. After appealing to the courts, he was allowed to use marijuana to treat his malady while in custody.
The charges were later thrown out after a judge ruled that the marijuana seized in McCormick's arrest was illegally obtained. "Todd is as determined an activist as I've ever seen to make sure others in need have this drug available to them," said lawyer Don Wirtshafter, who represented McCormick in the Ohio case.
"He's always believed that there were loopholes in medicinal marijuana laws because the government doesn't really provide adequate ways to acquire the drug and isn't letting the general public in on research of newer and more effective strains of the plant. Todd was goaded on by his own success and it's to hell with what the authorities think."
After living for a year in Amsterdam perfecting new strains of marijuana in a country where such research is legal, McCormick moved back to Los Angeles in February with a new goal.
"He was going to use techniques he was using in Holland," Peron said of McCormick, who according to friends leads a holistic lifestyle and does not drink alcohol or even take aspirin.
After securing a publishing advance, McCormick rented the Bel-Air house because he needed space to grow and work with his plants--which he planned to sell to cannabis suppliers nationwide, charging them only for the production costs.
Wirtshafter said he visited the house shortly after it was rented.
"It's quite something," he said. "It's got turrets and gangplanks, a moat with drawbridges, a dungeon and even king's quarters. But Todd wasn't into any of that. He just needed the space to grow his marijuana."
Marijuana advocate Cowan said that although a few large, mature plants were transferred to the house, most of the plants confiscated by authorities were small and recently planted varieties. "There were a few really tall plants, but most of them were seedlings and clones," he said.
Also charged Wednesday in federal court were Hermez Zygott, 30, from Europe, Aleksandra Kristin Evangelidi, 23, of New York, and Renee Danielle Boje, 28, of Boston.
Capt. Al Scaduto, of the sheriff's narcotics bureau, said deputies had seen people watering the plants, adding: "It was obviously a commercial operation in the propagation of marijuana plants."
Times correspondent Sue McAllister contributed to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Here are the facts about Tuesday's seizure of a mansion filled with marijuana, the largest pot bust in Los Angeles County history:
Value of marijuana seized: more than $20 million
Number of plants: 4,116, many visible through windows and growing in yard.
Time of raid: About 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Agencies involved: L.A. County Sheriff, assisted by agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency
People charged: 5