Pubdate: Thu, 19 Jan 2012 Source: Sarasota Herald-Tribune (FL) Copyright: 2012 Sarasota Herald-Tribune Contact: http://www.heraldtribune.com/sendletter Website: http://www.heraldtribune.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/398 Author: Chris Anderson DONNIE CLARK: MYAKKA CITY MARIJUANA LEGEND TURNED BACKYARD GARDENER The sheen emanating from Donnie Clark's emerald vegetable garden is blinding. There are hulking heads of lettuce, spinach and broccoli -- plants that will not land him in federal prison this time around. Myakka City's most famous folk hero now spends his days puttering around in his backyard plot, sun on his cheeks, dirt under his nails, the weight of the past no longer square on his shoulders. His life has been one of wild adventure, unrelenting mischief, lengthy confinement and abnormal forgiveness, and if he had not been born the son of a Manatee County commissioner 70 years ago then surely an imaginative screenwriter would have invented him. A country boy who rides a bull to school, grows up with a passion for farming and pulling pranks like putting baby gators inside classmates' lockers and getting friends out of bed with cattle prods. He graduates from Manatee High in 1959, gets rich as a sod farmer, divorces the mother of three of his children and begins a love affair with cocaine. He becomes one of the state's biggest marijuana growers and gets sentenced to life without parole for conspiracy in 1991 as part of the government's intensified war on drugs. He serves 10 1/2 years, half sharing a cell with his son, all with rapists and murderers, before he is surprisingly freed by a U.S. president. Then he returns home so out of sorts that he puts his truck in a ditch because he has forgotten how to drive it. It has been 11 years to the day since Bill Clinton signed Clark's walking papers and 1,000 hardened inmates chanted "Donnie, Donnie, Donnie" as he sauntered out of federal prison with $500 in his pocket, hopped into his sister's SUV and sped off to devour his first meal as a free man: cow intestines. Once, he owned 638 acres in Myakka City and had thousands of dollars of pot money stashed inside PVC pipes and buried on his property. The feds took it all. Now, he gets $1,200 a month in Social Security, owns two old vans and lives in a Bradenton home owned by his girlfriend Sonya, 23 years his junior. He gardens passionately, talks politely, labors over the book he is writing about his life and jitterbugs with Sonya at the Moose Club on Friday nights. He holds nothing against those who ratted on him, or those who put him behind bars. He is only peeved about one thing, and that happened on January 20, 2001, the morning Clinton commuted his sentence and he had to leave prison six hours later. "I missed my nap," he says. When Clark was first arrested in 1985 for growing pot in Myakka City, he told detectives to help themselves to the refrigerator. Then he helped them fill out the arrest report. "One thing you have to understand, Donnie was always a nice guy, he just made bad decisions," said David Livingston, a retired Manatee County sheriff's detective. Livingston, along with Sheriff's Lt. John E. Potts, had acted on a tip and found 900 plants, or about 100 pounds, that Clark had grown on his farm. After giving a lot away, and getting ripped off by friends, Clark says he probably made $100,000 from it. He received probation, two years house arrest and declared himself out of the pot growing game for good. That was it. "I was just messing around, like every damn thing else I do," Clark says. "Money ain't worth a whole lot to me. Hell, I just did it because I wanted to see if I could do it." Only that was not the end of it. In 1987, two men in Myakka City told detectives Clark had 100 more pounds in deep freeze. They lied. But when detectives arrived at Clark's farm they did find a small bag of marijuana and two hunting rifles that Clark, a felon, was not allowed to have. It was a probation violation, and he spent six weeks in prison at Raiford, which houses one of the state's death row cell blocks. Clark's two sons, Gary and Duane, were still active growers. In fact, at the peak Duane was growing pot in 29 swamps from Naples to Tampa. He could harvest 300 pounds a year and get $3,500 per pound. The pot was known as "Myakka Gold," though Donnie Clark called it "Myakky Wacky." There were no seeds, leaves or stems -- just buds and the sap that makes pot potent. It was legendary, a sexy bud even making the centerfold of "High Times" magazine one year. Because they navigated the swamps so well, almost like prowling gators, they were unrivaled as growers, Duane in particular. Their plants were virtually impossible to detect, especially by helicopters hovering above. How good at growing pot were they, Livingston was asked? "Unbelievable," he says. "I mean absolutely unbelievable." Myakka City is normally a quiet, peaceful, country town, but the vibe was starting to turn ugly because of pot plants Livingston estimates were worth "millions." Someone killed one of Livingston's dogs, and one day when his wife went to check the mail she found a water moccasin instead of the water bill. And that was before someone blew up the mailbox with a cherry bomb. Meanwhile, Gary Clark spray-painted a warning in big red letters on a wall at the Myakka City Post Office: "Anyone who rats on a grower is a dead rat." Two rats, apparently, did not get the message. In 1989, the federal government's war on drugs was in full force, and when two young growers from Manatee County named Bruce Hendry and Gary Huffman were arrested it was a whole new game. Facing 25 years to life, Huffman and Hendry named everyone they believed to be in the pot business, even Donnie Clark, though he had gotten out years before and now grew watermelons. In 1990 Clark was indicted along with 27 others on federal charges of conspiracy to grow marijuana from 1980-90. That type of indictment meant a person is responsible for the acts of the others. Duane Clark (10 years) and Gary Clark (seven years) took deals. Donnie Clark did not. He turned down seven years and went to trial instead. It was a matter of principle. Had he not already done his time? Clark was found guilty and under the new sentencing guidelines the judge had no option: Life without parole. "How I think of it was marijuana was just the tool that put me in prison," Clark says. "Why I went to prison was payback for all the tricks I pulled on everybody over the years. "It's a wonder I ain't been killed by now." In 1992, when he was in maximum security in Terre Haute, Ind., Clark began writing notes for his book, which he hopes will be out this summer. Of all he has done in his life, it is telling that among the first things he wrote were humorous recollections. Like the time the babysitter kept eating the dessert in the refrigerator, so he put a cow's eyeball in the Jell-O to see if she would eat it anyway. "She did," he says. If humor was a way to survive prison, so was reading. Clark devoured more than 750 books, documenting the titles, author and date finished. At one point he even read a book about Clinton, never dreaming the former president would change his life. Clinton left the White House amid controversy in 2001 when he pardoned 140 people, including names like Marc Rich (tax evasion), Susan McDougal (the Whitewater scandal), and Clinton's half-brother, Roger (drugs). The book has been Clark's main focus for the last several years. His garden is a close second, and people ranging from former NBA draft pick Waite Bellamy to Livingston often stop for the impressive vegetables he grows. Livingston and Clark became friends about a year ago. Once they were rivals -- the cop and the pot grower. Now they talk on the phone once a week. No hard feelings. "When you dance you gotta pay the fiddler," Clark says. Duane Clark, now a 48-year-old grandfather, paid the fiddler too. Once, he owned a $300,000 house on 20 acres near the Braden River in Manatee County. Now all he owns is a 10-foot canoe, a backpack and some clothes, most of which are buried in buckets around the state. Duane has chosen to essentially live off the land, and when he is in Florida he survives mainly by eating swamp cabbage, armadillos and honey collected at night from wild bees. His taste in cuisine comes from his father, who still eats everything from earthworms to bull testicles. Since 2008, Duane has hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide, from Mexico to Montana, sleeping in a garbage bag along the way. In Florida he tries to hike mainly on trails, but he has been known to travel months through thick swamp vegetation as well, sometimes naked. This is how he plans to live for the foreseeable future. Duane came out of the woods for the holidays, staying with his ex-wife and her husband in Myakka City. He was asked about the marijuana years. "I look back as being irresponsible, selfish, not thinking of my family," he says. "I didn't think marijuana was serious when I was doing it. I saw people get busted red-handed, but I figured the way I was doing it I'd never get caught. "And even if I did get caught I never thought it would be prison." As tough as prison was, it was made easier by sharing a cell for five years with his father, the legend of Myakka City. If the whole story sounds like a country song, well, now it is. "The Legend of Donnie Clark" was written and recorded last summer by a relative, Michael McLaughlin, and is available on the Internet. The chorus goes like this: "Myakka Gold, he was a-growin' And the cash began a-flowin' Myakka Gold, made him a legend But on the law he was a-treadin'" Is Donnie Clark a legend? "I don't know," he says. "I ain't much of nothing. I'm just a damn loafer." But to some people in Myakka City he is a legend. That becomes clear as he drives around passing out vegetables. His old friends may tease him about his pot-growing days, but he receives unspoken nods of respect too. Then, later in the day, he drives down a bumpy road on the farm he once owned. He stops at the tangled bog that made him famous, and thinks back to when it was all just a game that he could not lose. That is him, sitting peacefully under a bright-green tree in a deadly swamp, puffing on some of the best marijuana in America, laughing as another frustrated helicopter flies aimlessly above. - --- MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.