SPRINGFIELD, Ky. – With authorities closing in to seize 2,400 marijuana plants on John Robert Boone's farm two years ago, the legendary Kentucky outlaw vanished like a puff of smoke. The prolific grower has been dodging the law ever since, his folk-hero status growing with every sale of a "Run, Johnny, Run" T-shirt and click on his Facebook fan page.
Tracking down the fugitive who resembles a tattooed Santa Claus has proven as hard as "trying to catch a ghost" for the federal authorities canvassing tightlipped residents among the small farms in a rural area southeast of Louisville. Boone, who's trying to avoid the life sentence he would get if convicted a third time of growing pot, has plenty of sympathizers in an area where many farmers down on their luck have planted marijuana.
"That's all he's ever done, raising pot," said longtime friend Larry Hawkins, who owns a bar and restaurant called Hawk's Place. "He never hurt nobody."
As Hawkins puts it, there are two kinds of growers: "You've got the caught and the uncaught." And, at least for now, the 67-year-old Boone is a bit of both.
He spent more than a decade in federal prison after being convicted in the late 1980s of taking part in what federal prosecutors called the "largest domestic marijuana syndicate in American history," a string of 29 farms in Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and Wisconsin.
The group became known as the "Cornbread Mafia" and Boone was tagged by prosecutors as their leader, earning him the nicknames "King of Pot" and "Godfather of Grass." Eventually, 70 Kentuckians were accused of growing 182 tons of marijuana.
Boone's looks are a mixture of grandfatherly and sinister: Around the time of the 2008 raid on his property 60 miles southeast of Louisville, Boone sported white hair on his balding head and a shaggy white beard. Yet across his back are large, tattooed letters spelling "Omerta," the infamous Sicilian word that describes the underworld code of silence.
While federal authorities don't describe him as violent, his criminal record dates back to the 1960s and also includes charges of wanton endangerment and illegal firearm possession.
Deputy U.S. Marshal James Habib and Boone's friends call him an innovator — separating male from female plants on a large scale to increase potency and experimenting with seeds from around the world in different climates.
"He was the player. There might have been one or two close to him," said Jack Smith, a former federal prosecutor who represented Boone in the 1980s case. "I never heard of anybody who was bigger."
While Smith said some see marijuana growers as harmless, he points out large-scale operations can fund other illegal activities such as prostitution or lead to violence between dealers. Large marijuana fields in Kentucky and elsewhere are sometimes booby-trapped or patrolled by armed growers.
"It's illegal for a reason," Smith said.
Boone's rough-edged stomping grounds — dotted with small towns, corn fields and bourbon distilleries — have a colorful history of fostering illicit activities.
The area was home to moonshine runners during Prohibition, who often darted into rows of corn stalks and barns to hide from federal agents. In the early 1980s, as the economy soured and prices for tobacco and farm products dropped, parts of central Kentucky had unemployment rates nearing 14 percent. The rate in the area now is around 9 percent — similar to the national average.
"A lot of the sons of moonshine makers turned to marijuana," said Smith, a native of the area who now practices in Louisville. "That particular part of the state, that was the hometown of marijuana."
Boone himself invoked the area's hardships during the 1988 court hearing at which he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
"With the poverty at home, marijuana is sometimes one of the things that puts bread on the table," Boone said. "We were working with our hands on earth God gave us."
Boone's estranged wife, Marilyn, declined to speak to The Associated Press at her house. Other family members also declined to respond to phone calls and letters. And in the towns of central Kentucky — Springfield, Raywick, Loretto and Lebanon — many people acknowledged knowing of Boone, but either professed not to know him well or wouldn't speak about him to a reporter.
"Even if I knew where he was, I wouldn't tell you," said James "Jim Bean" Cecil, a 64-year-old Lebanon, Ky., resident who spent time in prison with Boone.
Those who would talk about Boone offered similar descriptions — a friendly, nonconfrontational man who was quick to open his wallet when friends were having trouble making ends meet. For example, a man who mowed the grass on Boone's sprawling property was given twice the fee he requested at the end of the job.
When Cecil got out of prison, Boone gave him money to get back on his feet.
"He never asked me to pay him back," Cecil said.
Friends also recall him as a heck of a farmer who grew corn and who just happened to also grow marijuana, which to some locals made Boone an outlaw, not a criminal. A Facebook page set up for him has 1,600 fans.
"He was just a good ol' country boy, a farmer," said Joe Pendleton, a Boone acquaintance whose shop sells the "Run, Johnny, Run" T-shirts in nearby Campbellsville. "He's not robbing banks or nothing."
Boone's latest trouble came in 2008, when Kentucky State Police doing aerial surveillance spotted marijuana plants on trailers on Boone's farm near Springfield. A raid turned up more than 2,400 plants, but no Boone.
"As soon as he found out they were there, he split," said Jim Higdon, a writer based in Lebanon, Ky., who interviewed Boone for a book project. "It was a death sentence. He became a fugitive."
Boone, who has marijuana-growing contacts in Central America, could be anywhere. Then again, Habib said he could still be hiding out in the rural, tight-knit area around his farm.
"It's like trying to catch a ghost," former Deputy U.S. Marshal Rich Knighten said shortly after Boone's indictment in 2008.
If Boone's friends have their way, he'll remain uncaught. Some complain it's not worth a life sentence — which Boone faces under the federal three-strikes provision — for a nonviolent drug charge.
"I never seen nobody get mad in my life smoking dope," said former Raywick mayor Charlie Bickett, who runs Charlie's Place, a bar filled with hand-painted milk cans and saws, including a painting of Boone looking out over the water while smoking a joint.
Even free, Bickett said, Boone is serving a sentence — wondering each day if he'll be caught and knowing he can't return to his family.
"I guarantee you, he'd love to be back home, Johnny would," Bickett said. "I really miss him. I sure do."