Los Angeles Times
Thursday, July 31, 1997
"Pot Palace" Used to Grow Cancer Drugs
Marijuana: Man charged with cultivating thousands of plants in turreted
Bel-Air mansion was trying to perfect a painkiller, family and activists say.
By: JOHN M. GLIONNA and TINA DAUNT
TIMES STAFF WRITERS
The man arrested at a Bel-Air mansion on charges of cultivating a $20-million
forest of marijuana plants is a self-made scientist and cancer patient
struggling to develop new strains of cannabis to help those suffering from
painful chronic diseases, activists and family members said Wednesday.
Todd Patrick McCormick, who faces a federal charge of cultivation of marijuana,
began smoking the drug as a teenager to quell the pain from a rare childhood
cancer, his family said. In recent years he has joined the radical front lines
of the battle for medicinal marijuana use, experimenting with genetic
engineering and clones of the plant to supply patients nationwide, marijuana use
At the time of his arrest Tuesday evening by Los Angeles County sheriff's
deputies, the 27-year-old Rhode Island native had received an advance to write a
book, was planning to launch a magazine on the subject of marijuana cultivation,
and was a well-regarded cannabis expert who is interviewed on the current High
Times magazine Web site.
His arrest--which one county sheriff's official said was the largest indoor
marijuana seizure the agency has ever made--outraged medicinal marijuana
activists, who praised McCormick as an inspired martyr.
Authorities said McCormick, who grew marijuana plants in virtually every
room of his five-story, fairy-tale-like mansion, appeared to be supplying
marijuana to cannabis clubs throughout the state.
He was arrested after deputies found about 4,000 marijuana plants growing
inside the Bel-Air castle with turrets and secret rooms, not far from the homes
of actress Elizabeth Taylor and former President Ronald Reagan. McCormick had
rented the mansion since February for $6,000 a month, friends say.
County authorities turned over the case to the U.S. attorney's office
because of the large volume of marijuana involved and their belief that
McCormick sold it to people in other states. He was in custody in lieu of
$1-million bail, and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Federal authorities also charged four others found at the home at the time
of McCormick's arrest with cultivation of marijuana.
At a Wednesday news conference, Sheriff Sherman Block said that
investigators received a tip about the massive marijuana operation while they
were conducting a bust in the South Bay about five days ago.
"Much to the surprise of our people, when you got up on the hill . . .
you could actually see [the plants] through the windows of the house," he
said. "Marijuana was growing on the patio, in the yard and all over the
Block said 4,116 high-grade marijuana plants--with an estimated street value
of $5,000 each--were individually tagged for their ultimate destinations and
illuminated with an elaborate lighting system.
"It is a very, very significant seizure," Block said.
He added that McCormick told the arresting deputies he was using the plants
to treat his own cancer. The sheriff, who has twice battled cancer himself,
quipped: "Four thousands plants should make him very healthy."
Richard Cowan, former national director of the National Organization for the
Reform of Marijuana Laws, said McCormick is a hero "for many people who
suffer from the pain of disease . . . a real force of nature who has put his
personal freedom on the line to develop new strains of marijuana for medicinal
"The fact that they are holding him on $1-million bail, treating him
like a criminal is a sham," Cowan said. "Todd is one of most
knowledgeable people in the area of cannabis in the world. His arrest and the
loss of the plants he was cultivating is a tragedy."
McCormick's mother, Ann McCormick, said in a telephone interview from her
home in Rhode Island that when her son was 2, doctors discovered he had
histiocytosis X, a form of bone marrow cancer that required nine surgeries and
extensive chemotherapy due to the continuous growth of tumors.
"We finally let Todd start smoking marijuana," she said. "His
father and I felt that this benign herb was less dangerous than the harsh
chemicals we had been allowing the doctors to pump through his veins. The
doctors saved Todd's life, but the cannabis saved his health."
McCormick grew up with a fascination for the possibilities that marijuana
smoking could bring to sufferers of pain such as himself, she said.
By the early 1990s, he had begun experimenting with various strains of the
plant on the theory that one strain might work well for someone suffering with a
brain tumor and another for an AIDS patient.
Soon afterward, he formed a series of cannabis supply clubs for people
needing the drug.
"He pure-breeds plants," said Dennis Peron, director of the San
Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club. "He's an amazingly intelligent person and
the kind of genetics he does, he needs a lot of plants. He isolates them and
combines them to form newer and better strains. He's into marijuana horticulture
in a big way."
In 1995, McCormick was arrested in Ohio while en route to Rhode Island with
30 pounds of home-grown marijuana to begin such a club in his hometown of
Providence. After appealing to the courts, he was allowed to use marijuana to
treat his malady while in custody.
The charges were later thrown out after a judge ruled that the marijuana
seized in McCormick's arrest was illegally obtained. "Todd is as determined
an activist as I've ever seen to make sure others in need have this drug
available to them," said lawyer Don Wirtshafter, who represented McCormick
in the Ohio case.
"He's always believed that there were loopholes in medicinal marijuana
laws because the government doesn't really provide adequate ways to acquire the
drug and isn't letting the general public in on research of newer and more
effective strains of the plant. Todd was goaded on by his own success and it's
to hell with what the authorities think."
After living for a year in Amsterdam perfecting new strains of marijuana in
a country where such research is legal, McCormick moved back to Los Angeles in
February with a new goal.
"He was going to use techniques he was using in Holland," Peron
said of McCormick, who according to friends leads a holistic lifestyle and does
not drink alcohol or even take aspirin.
"His dream was to bring California research into the 1990s. He had
begun new types of cloning and genetic engineering. He was really excited about
filling what he saw as a tremendous need."
After securing a publishing advance, McCormick rented the Bel-Air house
because he needed space to grow and work with his plants--which he planned to
sell to cannabis suppliers nationwide, charging them only for the production
Wirtshafter said he visited the house shortly after it was rented.
"It's quite something," he said. "It's got turrets and
gangplanks, a moat with drawbridges, a dungeon and even king's quarters. But
Todd wasn't into any of that. He just needed the space to grow his
Marijuana advocate Cowan said that although a few large, mature plants were
transferred to the house, most of the plants confiscated by authorities were
small and recently planted varieties. "There were a few really tall plants,
but most of them were seedlings and clones," he said.
Also charged Wednesday in federal court were David Wayne Richards, 25, of
Palmdale; an unidentified 30-year-old man from Europe; Aleksandra Kristin
Evangelidi, 23, of New York; and Renee Danielle Boje, 28, of Boston.
Capt. Al Scaduto of the sheriff's narcotics bureau, said deputies had seen
people watering the plants, adding: "It was obviously a commercial
operation in the propagation of marijuana plants."
Times correspondent Sue McAllister contributed to this story.
Here are the facts about Tuesday's seizure of a mansion filled with
marijuana, the largest pot bust in Los Angeles County history: Value of
marijuana seized: more than $20 million Number of plants: 4,116, many visible
through windows and growing in yard. Time of raid: About 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Agencies involved: L.A. County Sheriff, assisted by agents from the Drug
Enforcement Agency People charged: 5
GRAPHIC-MAP: Marijuana Mansion, Los Angeles Times
PHOTO CAPTION: "Media trucks are parked at mansion where marijuana plants
were found. Many were seedlings rather than mature plants."