Empires are not ruled by kind-hearted men. Cornbread Mafia by James Higdon explores what it takes to maintain order within the "largest domestic marijuana syndicate in American history."
Several farmers came to Johnny Boone to complain that Abell owed them money for doing their part. This sort of discontent bred disharmony in a network that depended on everyone keeping his word so that everyone else would keep his secrets. Cocaine turned once-reasonable men into ego-driven narcissists with little regard for the consequences of their fast-living behavior. Johnny Boone recognized it as bad for business. Cocaine was unraveling the delicate marijuana network that Boone had spent fifteen years helping to create.
Boone knew that if he didn't act quickly, that network would be damaged beyond repair. When he had the chance, he took J. C. Abell aside and told him Abell needed to pay the farmers whom he had stiffed from the previous year, but Abell didn't even acknowledge Boone other than to say goodbye or hello. The cocaine, in addition to rotting his mind and inflating his ego, had clogged Abell's ears. Johnny Boone needed to do something dramatic to get his attention. "We . . . had it out in the doorway of Bickett's bar," Johnny Boone recalled. "Same ol' shit, went bad.
"A month or two later, still nothing straightened out. Nobody come sit down and said, ‘OK, we can try to do this this week, something else next month.' There was no good talk about nothing.
"I said, ‘Fuck.'?"
Right at the end of that "month or two," Billy Thompson, a Raywick war veteran, died and joined his wife, Yun Sun Pok Thompson, in the Raywick cemetery. Due to Thompson's military service, Ft. Knox sent an army chaplain to Marion County to conduct the funeral rite alongside Father Clarence Schwartz in the cemetery where Charlie and Paul Stiles, the grandfathers of a new generation of outlaws, had been buried in 1971 and 1979, respectively.
From the back of the assembled mourners, Johnny Boone kept an eye on Abell, who befriended the army chaplain, a sandy-haired military man in his forties. After the services concluded, Abell offered the chaplain a ride back into town in his red Corvette.
Whereas J. C. Abell and many others began driving Corvettes as soon as they could afford them, Johnny Boone always drove a sturdy Chevrolet pickup, no matter how much money he made. His truck blended into its agricultural surroundings. If an IRS agent began asking questions, what excuse did Abell, a man without employment, have for owning a red Corvette?
After the funeral, J. C. Abell took the army chaplain on the grand tour, likely telling him stories about Raywick and all the crazy things that happened there, maybe even telling the story of when Charlie Stiles shot him in the knee for cutting donuts in the church parking lot.
"They went to the Fifth Wheel . . . and proceeded to get as drunk as they fucking could," Johnny Boone recalled.
Boone stayed in his truck and waited. Soon enough, they emerged from the Fifth Wheel and into the street.
"So, I seen him," Boone said. "They'd probably been doing coke, to tell you the fucking truth."
At that moment, Boone committed himself to getting his message across to Abell in one way or another.
"I just played up the part of the scorned partner," Boone said. "That [chaplain] just happened to be there on the wrong day."
So, as J. C. Abell staggered into the red Corvette with his new friend, the Ft. Knox chaplain, Johnny Boone watched them from his pickup. The red Corvette disappeared down Highway 84 toward Hodgenville.
"They'll be back," Boone thought and waited in his truck. When the red Corvette returned to Raywick, it came to a stop in front of the Bickett family home, where Highway 84 intersects the road where Boone was parked in front of the Fifth Wheel.
The chaplain sat in the Corvette's passenger seat as Abell let the engine idle at the only stop sign in Raywick when an oncoming pickup didn't stop and didn't turn. Instead, it made contact with the driver's-side door-not with the full impact of a head-on collision but with the gentle, deliberate thud of train cars coupling.
"I got my truck underneath him and just raised him up," Boone said.
Johnny Boone, after gently T-boning the Corvette, dropped his truck into low gear and pushed the red fiberglass sports car up into the air onto two wheels, sending Abell and the chaplain grasping for anything to keep from falling out the passenger-side window. Then Boone backed up, let the Corvette fall back onto all four tires and gave Abell and the chaplain a chance to breathe. And then-
"I did it again," Boone said.
The spectacle drew a crowd outside the Fifth Wheel and Bickett's Pool Hall. During the spontaneous demolition derby, Coletta Bickett, the woman who had raised the Bickett boys, ran out her front door into the street, trying to stop Boone from hurting Abell any further.
"Johnny! Stop!" Coletta yelled over the sounds of the Corvette's fiberglass body crunching and the pickup's engine revving and the crowd of drunk spectators continuing to gather. "Johnny! Johnny!"
Jimmy Bickett, just a face in the mob outside his family's pool hall, tried to keep his mother out of it.
"Mamma!" Jimmy shouted, waving his arms. "Get back in the goddamn house!"
"Funniest part of it was Mrs. Bickett standing out there in her yard," Boone said, looking back twenty years later. "It was the funniest shit in the world."
Boone raised and lowered the Corvette a third time, which he figured was enough to get J. C. Abell's attention. So, after setting the Corvette down onto all four tires, Johnny Boone stepped out of his pickup to talk to Abell face to face but not before grabbing the handgun he kept in his truck. Gone were the days of Charlie Stiles, when one could go around without a firearm.
"I got out to go see J. C.," Boone said. "And the chaplain got out and came around that fucking car. I had something [a pistol] in my hand, but he didn't know it when he came charging around that car. Hair up like this, still had his tie on, eyes wild."
Only when the chaplain was face to face with Boone did he see the steel in his hand.
"Are you sure?" Boone asked him.
"And that motherfucker ran around the car and slammed the fucking door," Boone said later.
Then Boone leaned down to J. C. Abell's window.
"So much for your help," Boone said. "Now what?"
There were dozens of witnesses, including Steve Lowery, the newspaper editor.
"He [Boone] casually got into his pickup truck," Lowery said later, "and knocked that Corvette all the way into about next week. I mean, it just tore the hell out of it. The Corvette was destroyed. Then he got out and said, ‘You want to fuck with me now? You want some more?'
"No report was ever made. A lot of this stuff was folklore, but it happened."
Excerpted from The Cornbread Mafia: A Homegrown Syndicate's Code of Silence and the Biggest Marijuana Bust in American History by James Higson and published by Lyons Press. All rights reserved.
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