LEBANON, Maine — This wooded town is sometimes called “Lawless Lebanon,” an unsettling nickname that even Selectmen Chairman Charles Russell Jr. doesn’t quarrel with. It’s a sprawling place with no police force, a reputation for nasty name-calling in its politics, and now a divisive recall election aimed at Russell and three other town officials.
The vote, scheduled for Tuesday, is partly about the freewheeling mud-slinging that can characterize the public discourse here. But it’s also about accusations that Russell and Selectman Ernest “Butch” Lizotte Jr. raided a local farm and helped steal approximately $100,000 in marijuana plants in the dead of night, knowing that the owner was in jail.
The alleged ransacking and its lingering political fallout have caused an uproar that’s unusual even by Lebanon’s bare-knuckle standards. It isn’t every day, after all, that two town leaders are caught up in a brazen scheme to cart off someone’s pot and pigs.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” said Michael Walsworth, a leader of the recall effort and member of the town’s Budget Committee. “It’s an anticorruption movement, and now a fight for justice.”
In August 2020, the marijuana farmer, Eric Kelley, was in York County Jail on a probation violation when an unknown number of people, Russell and Lizotte among them, showed up at his four-acre property and made off with 26 marijuana plants being grown for medicinal sales, according to statements made to State Police during its criminal investigation.
In addition to losing the marijuana plants, Kelley said, the town’s two animal control officers seized all his animals: two bull calves, two goats, seven pigs, and 12 chickens. None have been returned.
“It was like losing everything I had worked so hard for. It felt like I had been pickpocketed,” said Kelley, who was released from jail about a week after the seizures. “I first thought the neighbors might have stolen it, but wait, the town selectmen?”
Budget Committee member Deborah Wilson, who was at the farm that night, is also facing recall, as is Selectman Jeff Adams, who had no role in the incident but has missed half this year’s meetings, according to the recall leaders.
York District Attorney Kathryn Slattery declined to prosecute Russell and Lizotte following the State Police investigation. Officials at her office could not be reached for comment on the case.
But the after-effects linger. Kelley, who was jailed for violating probation in a domestic-relations case, remained silent about the incident until June. But since then, his anger has stoked a fiery debate in this town of 6,000 people on the New Hampshire border.
For his part, Russell said he’s been called worse things than a thief in his three contentious years in office.
“They can call it what they want,” Russell, 52, said dismissively at his lakeside home. “I think we’ve done so many good things. I didn’t get into politics to deal with this [expletive].”
Russell survived another recall vote last year, after former state representative Karen Gerrish filed a petition that accused Russell of creating “a hostile atmosphere that inhibits the Town of Lebanon ... from conducting normal governmental activities free from harassment.”
Walsworth, who is pushing the recall effort, said Russell also has conflicts of interest in his ties to the marijuana business. Not only did he help draft marijuana ordinances for the town, Walsworth said, but the selectmen chairman worked as a consultant for one of the four marijuana businesses in Lebanon.
Russell, who said he grows medicinal marijuana for household use, told the Globe he received “very minimal” consulting fees for that work. He also said he has no financial stake in the company or any other existing marijuana businesses in Lebanon, which has opened the door for new applicants.
Russell told State Police that seizing Kelley’s marijuana plants was done solely to protect the town, which relies on the far-flung State Police for law enforcement. Russell also told investigators he had heard that Kelley, 40, would be jailed for a few years and that he didn’t want the plants getting “into the hands of the wrong people.”
“I asked Russell specifically what authority he had to take the marijuana plants,” State Trooper Patrick Hall wrote in his report. “He told me that he did not take any; he just helped other people do so. ... He told me that he had no authority to take the plants.”
Lizotte later told Hall he was following Russell’s orders when he took the plants.
In the interview with the Globe, Russell reiterated that removing the marijuana from Kelley’s farm was done to keep order in the town.
“It was a safety issue,” Russell said. “The place was chaos. There were pigs running loose there, and 25 people trying to catch them. There were kids running around the neighborhood.”
An animal control officer told Hall that, before the marijuana seizure, Kelley’s pigs had escaped and were digging up a neighbor’s yard. Kelley’s other animals were in distress and needed to be removed, she added.
“The cows were dying of thirst ... the goats were starving,” the animal control officer said.
The trooper, however, didn’t see it that way.
“I saw two calves in an enclosure. They were laying down and showing no signs of distress. They appeared well-groomed,” Hall wrote in his report. “The goats also showed no signs of distress and had large bellies.”
Kelley suspects that the pig enclosure was sabotaged.
“The pallet door looked kicked in, and the little pigpen gate looked stepped on,” he told investigators.
Whether the pigs’ escape was a set-up or not, Kelley said he has been forced to build his business all over again, even though the plants were returned to the farm soon after State Police began looking into the case.
The problem, Kelley said, was that half of the plants turned brown before their return and died a week later. That loss cost him 800 seeds and $8,000 for each of the 13 plants, Kelley estimated.
“Can you go to Walmart, steal something and break it, and then bring it back?” Kelley asked. “It just makes me upset that they think they’re going to get away with this.”
Walsworth said the incident has given Lebanon a stark opportunity to ask tough questions about the limits of power and accountability in small-town government.
“I voted for the guy twice,” Walsworth said of Russell. “Now, I’m like, what is going on? What happened to Eric is just the visible part of the system.”
Russell said he’s unsure how the recall will play out but he’s proud of his service to the town — including volunteer work as a sports coach, responding to resident complaints and requests, and saving money on seemingly mundane items including mowing the grass.
“I think it’s sickening,” Russell said of the recall. “I think we’ve done so many good things, and I think the people doing this are doing it for self-gain. People can call it Lawless Lebanon all they want.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.