On Monday, Sept. 3, 2001, at 5:25 p.m., FBI special agent Richard Salomon, from a distance of less than 10 yards and using a bureau-issued .308 sniper rifle, shot Tom Crosslin between the eyes, blowing the 46-year-old’s brains out the back of his head. The next day, at a little after 6:35 a.m., sergeant Daniel Lubelan, of the Michigan State Police, fired two shots from his .308 Remington sniper rifle. The first hit Crosslin’s lover, Rollie Rohm, near his heart. The second blew off his balls. By the time lieutenant Jerry Ellsworth jumped on Rohm’s back to handcuff him, the 28-year-old was dead, thus ending a five-day standoff between the owners of Rainbow Farm and the combined forces of local, state and federal law.
According to the FBI report, Crosslin, at the moment he was shot, had spotted the well-camouflaged Salomon and was raising his mini 14 Ruger in the agent’s direction, presumably to fire at him. The Michigan State Police report indicates that Rohm, just before he was fired on, had shouldered his Ruger and aimed it at the armored assault vehicle approaching him. The accounts in both reports are, five years later, still a matter of some dispute, particularly the one concerning Rohm, whom even law enforcement knew to be a peaceful, even hapless, stoner. A larger dispute, however, especially to residents of rural Cass County, in Michigan’s southwest corner, is what compelled the full, heavily armed force of the law to isolate Rainbow Farm, infiltrate the grounds with snipers, and then move in on Rohm with an assault vehicle.
That dispute aside, how did this dramatic, deadly standoff escape the attention of the national media when seemingly similar standoffs at Ruby Ridge and Waco received round the clock attention, and have since become part of America’s consciousness? It didn’t, at least at first. CNN, FOX, The Associated Press, Rolling Stone and a gaggle of local media were all over the story, but just as they were beginning to understand the conflict as more complicated than a couple of drugged-out gun nuts gone berserk, airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. By the time the national media got back to covering anything else, Rainbow Farm, except to the people in Cass County, was a distant memory.
Enter Dean Kuipers, Los Angeles City Beat’s deputy editor, who grew up just a few miles from the location of the 35-acre farm. In his fascinating Burning Rainbow Farm:How a Stoner Utopia Went Up in Smoke, he writes, “The shootings in Vandalia smelled funny the moment I read about them on the cover of the Kalamazoo Gazette. The Sept. 9, 2001 Sunday subscription edition arrived at my house in California, and there was…the headline ‘It Just Doesn’t Make Sense.’ ”
By November, Kuipers was in Cass County interviewing everybody involved, trying to figure out how and why two gay Republican marijuana advocates, whose Rainbow Farm festivals hosted performances by the likes of Merle Haggard and Tommy Chong, were blown away. They weren’t dealing drugs, and their festivals were well-organized, peaceful affairs. People got stoned, as they tend to do at festivals, and they danced all night to bands on the post-Grateful Dead circuit. But Crosslin and Rohm forbade the sale of marijuana on their property—and even the possession of hard drugs. On Rainbow Farm’s website, and on a giant sign posted at the farm’s entrance, was the message, “Using or selling drugs of any kind is illegal. Anyone found with hard drugs on Rainbow Farm will be evicted.” A farm employee explains Crosslin’s motto: “If you’re not getting high enough on marijuana, then smoke better marijuana.” But surely the government didn’t whack two of its citizens for smoking pot.
As Kuipers dug into the story, the real reasons for the raid began to unfold. The simplest was that the county prosecutor, Scott Teter, a religious conservative who had run for office on an anti-drug platform, had it in for the farm, which went against everything he believed. Crosslin, who’d had trouble with the law since he was a teenager, was an avowed pot smoker and advocate (actually sponsoring a ballot initiative to legalize the drug in Michigan). What seemed to rankle Teter further was that Crosslin and Rohm became pillars of the community: along with employing many of the county’s down-and-out residents, the pair also sponsored clean-up drives, bought Christmas gifts for needy families, and paid for hot lunches for many of Cass County’s poorest schoolchildren. Teter’s biggest beef, though, was what the farm represented: a kind of libertarian freedom the law-and-order prosecutor could never understand. Crosslin and Rohm called themselves Republicans precisely because they believed the government had no authority to regulate the private lives of citizens, especially lives acted out peacefully and on private property.
A haven for society’s castoffs, Rainbow Farm was a place where you got a job without being piss-tested, where you could hang out and smoke a joint in peace. As Kuipers writes, “It was a dream of disappearance and reinvention, and anyone who wanted to disappear and reinvent themselves and imagine a new world was welcome.” By the time the government finally came in with its guns (at Teter’s behest), Rainbow Farm was thriving. It had a store, a coffee shop, campgrounds, showers, a giant stage in a natural amphitheatre, and was playing host to some of the biggest marijuana-rights festivals in the country. Haggard, stepping down from his tour bus to take in the place, said, “I can’t believe they haven’t killed you boys yet.”
By the time Kuipers finished his investigation, Teter was just another cog in America’s out-of-control War on Drugs machine, and Crosslin and Rohm just another couple of outcasts forced into a desperate, violent confrontation to protect what they owned. Particularly noxious to Kuipers are the drug forfeiture laws, employed by Teter to seize their property. Originally designed to thwart big-time international drug dealers, the laws were altered in the ’90s to allow seized assets to go not into the General Fund, but directly to the seizers. All of a sudden, police departments and other law enforcement agencies were able to keep what they took. Need a new fleet of cruisers? Bust someone and sell his house. Need a helicopter? Bust someone and take her savings. A frenzy of forfeitures ensued, and it became commonplace for citizens to lose their businesses, property, homes and vehicles, as well as their bank accounts, for a simple possession charge. They didn’t even need to be found guilty.
If that sounds far-fetched, Kuipers provides reams of evidence and statistics, and several case studies. As for the grander purpose of these seizures, he quotes Stephen Gaskin, founder of The Farm in Summerville, Tenn., which has itself survived two civil forfeiture actions. Gaskin, a featured speaker at Rainbow Farm festivals, said: “When the crime is so minor, having marijuana, and the punishment is so unreasonable, taking people’s homes and years of their lives as well as a very real 20th century shunning, one is forced to look for deeper motives.” For Gaskin, the war on drugs is a front for ridding the country of liberals: “Committed liberal persons are undesirable and are to be banned, interdicted, harassed, discouraged, arrested and pee-tested. It is a blatant use of police power to frighten and intimidate millions of people.” Tom Crosslin and Rollie Rohm, no saints but no devils either, just human beings who liked their grass, refused to be intimidated and were blown away.
Kuipers writes with the zeal of an investigative reporter. His story stretches from the Crosslin family’s roots in Manchester, Tenn., through its move to Indiana, where Tom grew up and where he met Rohm, and finally to southern Michigan. To his credit, Kuipers doesn’t make the two heroes. He details, in fact, Crosslin’s violent streak, and Rohm comes off as more troubled-young-man than revolutionary. But then, Kuipers’ point is not to make martyrs of the men, but to demonstrate how a government with unchecked power can so easily marginalize and thereby stifle opposition. Look no further than the recent wiretapping scandals, evidence of secret prisons, and the ballot box fiascos of the last two presidential elections to understand Kuipers’ concern.
Still, the author comes down on the side of optimism. Throughout his time in the rural Midwest, he found an unlikely coalition outraged at government abuse: “It became clear that something had changed in the greasy blue-collar boonies that were central to my own identity. Plain old cannabis had transcended its middle-finger status to become an organizing principle for a real, honest-to-god movement that blurred all political and even religious lines.” In the same way that a variety of 1960s movements—civil rights, feminism, the drug culture—coalesced around Vietnam, “the hemp festivals at Rainbow Farm had become a catch-all for discontent,” he writes. “Somehow, in the nonsensical and false climate of red-vs.-blue politics, the potent symbol of all their disparate anger was weed.”