An L.A. man on probation for running a rogue pot shop in Venice has gone missing in Northern California's marijuana country, his family says.
The last known whereabouts of 45-year-old Jeffrey Keith Joseph was the Hoopa, California area of Humboldt County — the location of a cellphone tower that "pinged" a call he made on the morning of June 21, family members said. He later missed a July 1 flight to Louisiana.
His sister, who did not want her name published, told us he had left his uncle's home in Chatsworth on June 20 in his 1998 green Rav4. She said he intended to visit a "farm" in Humboldt County, California, which is part of the largest marijuana growing region in the United States, an area often referred to as the Emerald Triangle:
One person from that farm has subsequently left the state, and another changed his number, according to a man who identified himself as Joseph's cousin. The family has hired a private investigator.
The Humboldt County Sheriff's Office has a detective on the case, too, a spokesman said. Humboldt County has been inundated with drug-related crime and missing persons cases in recent years, he said.
"We have so many missing people," the spokesman said. "We've had two homicides in the last four days. Our homicide and missing persons rate per-capita is like that of Oakland or Detroit."
The county's population is only about 134,000, which is smaller than that of Torrance.
Joseph's last location is a town off Highway 96, on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, which is dissected by the Trinity River. The Trinity feeds into the Klamath, which is well known for irrigating cannabis grows.
One part of the county, the sheriff's spokesman said, was "a spider web of dirt roads, where 200 people live on a commune, off the grid, with generators." That area has seen "four homicides in two years," he said.
There have long been rumors that Mexican drug cartels have been attracted to the area, although proof is scant.
Despite California's legal medical marijuana market, the growers that feed it are often part of criminal enterprises, even more so if they're using federal land or cultivating mass quantities. Much of their product ends up feeding L.A.'s nearly 1,000 city-registered pot shops, which outnumber those in Colorado and Washington state combined.
One of the leading experts in cultivation told us previously that California's annual outdoor harvest would start this month and extend through fall.
Joseph's cousin said police suspect "foul play" in his case, something the Humboldt sheriff's spokesman said he couldn't confirm because a detective was just assigned to the case. But Joseph's sister says much of the same:
"We've definitely heard rumors that he was heading up to a farm," she said. "That's what we're trying to figure out with his phone records. There's so many phone calls. We're trying to find out who he was meeting."
She teared up at times, saying the family fears the worst:
There's lawlessness up there. People get killed. There's so many missing people up there. They just vanish. ... Regardless of whether or not he was doing something wrong, we don't want Jeff to look bad. He might be dead. He didn't deserve to be murdered ... I don't have much hope that Jeff is alive. That's my own gut instinct as a sister.
Joseph's sister said she was close to him, and that he always kept in touch. He had a good heart and took care of his bed-ridden mother for two years recently, she said.
The Los Angeles Police Department also has an open, missing persons file on Joseph, a detective told us. But the active investigation would happen in Humboldt County because that's where he was last seen and where he was headed.
Joseph was convicted in 2011 of selling marijuana illegally from his dispensary storefront, Organica, which straddled the Venice neighborhood of L.A., and Culver City. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the District Attorney, the L.A. City Attorney, and Culver City authorities all targeted his shop.
The LAPD arrested Joseph after city prosecutors alleged he was laundering money through that business.
One of authorities' driving contentions was that Organica marketed marijuana to students going to and from a nearby high school. At one point, authorities alleged, students were found with Oranica weed on them. Prosecutors also claimed that the dispensary did $400,000 a month in business and that, in one raid in 2009, 80 kilos of marijuana were found on-site.
As part of his sentence, Joseph was ordered to serve one year behind bars and then do five years of probation. (His sister says he was indeed still on probation despite a recent attempt to shorten that part of his punishment).
The judge also forbade him from "selling, serving, storing, keeping, manufacturing, cultivating or giving away marijuana."
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After three days of trying, we couldn't get any information from the Los Angeles County Probation Department on Joseph's disposition there, although a deputy chief did finally return our call late yesterday.
Joseph's sister said she believed he was not supposed to leave L.A. County as part of his probation:
Was he doing things he wasn't supposed to do on probation? Sure. I'm not worried about that now. I'm worried about finding my brother. If that means going back to jail, that's fine. I want him back alive.