A Crippled 76-Year-Old Is Rotting in Prison for a Decades-Old Weed Charge
On the lam nearly 25 years for a pot charge in New York, John Forbis was known to his tiny Oregon community as Steve Causey. Then a bum hip forced him to apply for Medicare under his real name.
Image by Lia Kantrowitz for VICE
In the forest, freedom was absolute. Every evening, Steve Causey took a drive up and down Deadwood Creek Road in his '74 F250 with his partner, Minnie Fernbaugh, and their dogs Buddy and Dolly, slowly passing under the thick green moss dripping from maple boughs hanging overhead. They called their daily ritual the “Bark Patrol,” an excuse to greet the neighbors, share news, and exchange jokes.
For more than two decades Causey was an institution in Deadwood, a leafy, secluded community, population hovering around 300, in Oregon's Coast Range hosting an eclectic mix of ranchers, loggers, hippies, and outlaws. He made his living doing odd jobs, selling firewood, planting trees and other physical labor keeping up his land like raising animals and gardening. By 2014, the couple was aging—he, in his 70s, she her 80s—and his right hip was shot, causing immense pain that put him in a wheelchair part time. He scheduled a hip replacement, hoping to restore his mobility so he could continue to work.
A week before the surgery, on October 30 of that year, Fernbaugh returned home from a trip to town and found Causey’s wheelchair empty in the yard. Steve was gone, leaving no clue to where he could be. Neighbors searched the creek, in fear he’d fallen in. A friend called the hospital, then the police. Only then did a 22-year-old secret come to light.
The sleepy community was shocked to learn their friend Steve Causey was a fugitive named John Forbis who had jumped bail in New York state in 1992 after he was arrested with over 850 pounds of marijuana. After he eluded authorities for decades, the law finally tracked him down in his out-of-the-way hideout thanks to a prosecutor who never forgot about him. Forbis was extradited to New York where he is currently serving time, his freedom a memory, the woods a dream. As he prays for release, he wonders how much of his old life in Oregon will be left when, or if, he returns. Now 76, he’s nearly four years into a sentence that could carry a maximum of 15.
In an era where public opinion and the political climate around marijuana are markedly different than in the ‘90s when he was arrested, Forbis hears news on the radio of state after state legalizing pot, including in the Oregon he called home when arrested. While New York has a medical marijuana program, recreational possession of more than a few grams is still illegal, and Forbis’s crime, possession of more than 10 pounds, remains a class C felony. The state’s health department did produce a report this June recommending legalization outright, although such a move would still require legislative action. Nationally, recent polls have returned figures as high as 68 percent of Americans in favor of marijuana legalization.
In the summer of 2017, Forbis slowly rolls his wheelchair into the visiting room at the Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, New York, a maximum security prison whose enormous stone walls dominate the wooded landscape a few miles from Poughkeepsie. He wears loose green prison-issue clothes, has a thin gray goatee and just wisps of what’s left of his once-long hair. He’s gained 30 pounds since his 2014 arrest, mostly in the gut and cheeks, and suffers from a host of ailments, including osteoporosis, arthritis, emphysema, and cataracts.
Throughout the loud, expansive room, inmates, many graying, speak with women and children across the tables, savoring the brief moments of human contact. “This is hell,” Forbis states baldly. Instead of growing his own food, he lives on bread and salami and, he says, rotten apples. He sits in his cell and listens to the radio, writes letters to friends back in Oregon, reads whatever mystery and science fiction he can get his hands on, and waits as the days slip away.
John Forbis was born in 1942 in Portland, Oregon. His parents divorced when he was a baby and he bounced around with his mom until they ended up in Northern California with his great-grandmother. In 1963, right before the Vietnam war blew up, he signed with the California National Guard and stayed for six years, serving as a radio man during the Watts riots and narrowly avoiding activation to fight overseas.
In his 20s he picked up work at a concrete plant in northern California while he says he “underwent the transformation from a James Bond wannabe to a back woods hippie.” He made his way to San Francisco when work was slow, catching the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane in Golden Gate Park.
“I don’t remember a lot of it,” he says. “I’m sure I had a good time.”
In the 1970s he moved to Summit, Oregon, and learned to grow marijuana, enough for a personal stash and spending money. “Pot has been an ally, mentally, financially, and medically,” Forbis says.
Summit was also where he met Sharon Sweet, sparking a 40-year friendship forged through a shared love of dancing and the Dead. “He had his heart and his house open and there was always enough to share,” says Sweet, sitting in front of the Deadwood Tavern in what passes for a downtown in the rural community, alongside a gas station, a sparsely stocked general store and a U.S. Post Office. “He was local color. He had a Ford Falcon station wagon called Burt the Millennium Falcon.”
“He was my best friend,” she says. “I miss him.”
He spent much of the 1980s as an itinerant laborer, and found himself working construction jobs in Austin, Texas, when he says he met a group of people—he describes them as looking like yuppies—who asked him to watch their marijuana stash house and process their weed. “I said yeah!” he writes to VICE, who corresponded with the inmate via mail and in one prison interview.
"I'd unload, unbale, fluff, check for mold, extra sticks and trash and adjust the water content and seal it into plastic bags with a vacuum sealer," he explains. He added Captain Morgan’s rum to the product to improve its flavor and stop the growth of mold, and took to wearing keys to the house around his neck after he lost one in a bale, prompting an aggravating search.
Between jobs in Texas working construction, watching the stash house and processing pot, he says, he would travel to Mexico, Guatemala, and vacation to southeast Asia with a woman he refers to as the “English Girl,” whose real name he wouldn't provide in order to protect her privacy—the travel strictly for pleasure, never business, he insists.
In 1992, his employers told him they had a shipment waiting to be watched and processed in Columbia County, New York. The job, which would require him to leave the state, smelled funny from the jump. "Every cosmic sign was telling me 'Don't go to New York,'" Forbis writes in a letter to VICE.
Despite his reservations and a string of bad signs—flat tires, vehicle troubles, a missed flight—he arrived in the town of Gallatin, north of Poughkeepsie, and settled into a residence on Church Road, a dead-end street lined with charming houses sparsely set among the woods. A suspicious neighbor brought a state police investigator to the detached garage where the pot was stored, and the officer noted the smell of marijuana.
"One morning I was sitting in the kitchen when a whole bunch of cops surround the garage (they had a dog) and I knew this was it," Forbis writes. A trooper approached and asked if he had a key to the garage. He couldn’t deny it—it was hanging from his neck. When they arrested him, among the items the police seized were his passport, various power hand tools, a garden sprayer, a plastic heat sealer, dehumidifiers, fans, an empty bottle of Captain Morgan, and 850 pounds of pot.
Forbis was indicted June 16, 1992, for “criminal possession of marihuana in the first degree,” a class C felony, and entered a not guilty plea at his arraignment the following day. His employers, he says, arranged for his $150,000 bail and two lawyers to handle the case, brought on through an intermediary. Peter Gerstenzang, one of the attorneys who represented him, says the defense was a challenge, given the evidence. “Our theory was this was really someone else’s and this guy was just a hired hand," he says. "I don’t think this was his marijuana by any stretch of the imagination."
Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka considered Forbis a flight risk given all the foreign stamps in his passport, but the judge dismissed the possibility, figuring “it will avail him to not abscond for proceedings will go on without him to a substantive result,” according to a transcript of the bail hearing.
Forbis spoke sparingly during the hearing, only answering affirmatively to direct questions posed by the judge as to whether he understood the rules of his bail. Almost immediately after he was freed, he disappeared, not to surface again for 22 years.
On August 4 of 1992, his attorneys informed the court they were unable to contact Forbis, so the trial moved forward without his participation. His lawyers unsuccessfully attempted to suppress the evidence, arguing, among other things, the search was illegal because the police officer was unqualified to identify the scent of marijuana. “Sounds pretty desperate,” Gerstenzang chuckles when reminded of the tactic he and his co-counsel employed.
The trial was held the week of August 17. “The D.A. saw fit to bring all he had gotten from the raid into the courtroom so the jury could see the quantity of marijuana we were dealing with,” Thomas Dias, one of the members of the jury, remembers. “It absolutely filled up the courthouse with the smell of rum.”
Ultimately, the jury delivered a guilty verdict on the evening of August 21 and on October 5, the judge handed down a five to 15-year prison term. On the same day, following complaints its “nauseating odor” had become a nuisance, he permitted the police to destroy the marijuana. At that, the case was wrapped—except there was no defendant to serve the sentence.
Forbis today says he had no second thoughts about running. “When I saw the door, I was out,” he says. “I figured I could slip in between the cracks.” He hopped a plane to Texas, where he says his employers gave him the birth certificate of a dead baby bearing the name Steve Causey. Under the alias, he returned to Oregon but cut off communication with his friends and neighbors of the previous 20 years. “If you are gonna try’n disappear, you gotta disappear,” he writes. “People, no matter how much they love you, talk.” No one else was ever implicated in this case.
He remained in contact with only two people. One was his best friend Sharon Sweet from Summit, who now lived near the Oregon coast. The other was the English Girl, who moved with him to Deadwood, not so much a town as a few hundred people spread out on farms and homesteads along a partially paved road that dissipates into old logging routes—just the kind of environment a person could slip away for a couple decades. Neighbors perceived him as a low-key, off-the-grid kinda guy who avoided questions about his past.
He settled into a life with the English Girl, cutting firewood and performing labor for cash while she crafted batik fabric to sell at the Eugene Saturday Market. But just as he started getting comfortable, his new life crumbled around him. The English Girl decided to return to Britain, leaving him alone and heartbroken. The place he rented in Deadwood was sold out from under him. He moved to the town of Mapleton, Oregon, about 15 miles down the road, but the Siuslaw River flooded in '96 and destroyed most of his belongings.
He started over again, returning to Deadwood to live in a 31-foot Airstream trailer. He picked up jobs planting thousands of Douglas fir and western red cedar trees in fields cleared by loggers, and over time became an integral member of the community, many there say, always ready to lend a hand to a neighbor in need. A poor man but happy, according to friends.
Soon enough he found himself lingering when he stopped to buy eggs from the recently widowed Minnie Fernbaugh, known in Deadwood as the “egg lady” because she kept over 200 hens. “At first we’d just hang out and talk, then I started spending more time at her farm and the next thing y’know we became a couple,” he writes.
They spent nearly 20 years together, sharing Minnie’s greasy fried chicken and making omelets with chanterelle mushrooms harvested in the woods, and taking care of a menagerie of rabbits, peacocks, chickens, ducks, dogs, cats, and goats. “I had my dog, my woman, and my pickup truck,” Forbis says.
By 2013 pain in his hip got so bad he couldn’t work. In acute need of surgery, with no way to earn money, he dropped his assumed identity for the first time in 20-plus years and applied for Social Security and Medicare benefits as John Forbis.
He figured enough time had passed that he would be safe, and he might have been right if not for a minor political shake-up in New York. After a nearly two-decade stint as a county judge, Paul Czajka had been re-elected District Attorney of Columbia County in 2011. Czajka did not respond to numerous phone calls and emails from VICE requesting an interview, but Assistant District Attorney James Carlucci confirms the D.A. “rattled some cages” when he returned to the office to put investigators back on the trail of the only defendant he ever remembered losing.
Soon after Forbis applied for his federal benefits, a flag at Social Security's Fugitive Enforcement Program caused an abrupt end to his freedom. In November 2014, the police showed up at his trailer.
“This had always been way in the back of my mind when I had to start using my real name,” he writes. “But I had no other option.”
The community was aghast at his arrest. “This guy hasn’t hurt anyone in any way, shape or form,” says Richie Gross, a longtime resident of Deadwood, who like the rest of the town was unaware of his friend’s true identity. “He revealed himself because he was hurting so bad,” Gross says. “It’s a pitiful situation.”
“He did a really good job staying below ground,” says Keith Strom, another neighbor, who wears a red plaid shirt, a straw hat and a large buckle on the front of his jeans that spells “Keith.” “I remember he made a comment one time—‘All of us are lawbreakers. That doesn’t mean we’re all criminals.’ I didn’t know how deep that went for him.”
A few miles up Deadwood Creek Road, a sprawling, tangled lot hosts a motley collection of shacks and trailers in various states of disrepair, including the now-empty Airstream where Forbis had lived. A flock of peacocks ambles through the driveway and inquisitive cats peer out from among the plywood and farm debris piled about the property.
“He didn’t talk much about his past,” Fernbaugh says about life with Forbis. “We didn’t know nothing.”
Fernbaugh can no longer take care of the farm herself, so she lives with her daughter, Marilyn Thompson, near Eugene and travels out once a week to check in on the animals. The rest of the time, Strom keeps an eye on the property.
“Minnie is part of the tragedy,” Strom says. “He could have taken care of her and she could have stayed on the land. This pulled her out of the community. She would have stayed in Deadwood until she stops breathing, but without Steve, she can’t.”
“I just can’t stay alone anymore,” the taciturn Fernbaugh acknowledges.
Asked if she misses him, she lets a pause hang in the air. “Naturally,” she replies.
“I think Mom’s kind of given up hope,” Thompson says sadly.
Forbis’s own hope is strained by the dull monotony of prison. “My frame of mind varies from ‘I can tolerate this’ to ‘let me the fuck out of this place NOW.’ (which of course is pissin’ against the hurricane),” he writes. “When you’ve been with a person for 20 years, everyday withdrawals are a bitch.”
He is currently eligible for parole in October 2018, following a merit release hearing in July that shaved a year off his previous earliest release date. The New York Department of Corrections declined to disclose any information about Forbis’s status due to confidentiality rules, but he was recently moved to Livingston Correctional Facility, a medium security prison near Rochester.
There are other avenues that could have seen him released earlier. Keith Strom and Sharon Sweet have gathered 51 letters from neighbors opposing his incarceration, citing traits like his “good character and integrity” and the “gaping hole in our little mountain community” caused by his absence, included in a clemency petition filed in June 2017 that failed to bear fruit.
Another option arose early in 2018 when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a “geriatric parole program” to expedite the release of old and infirm inmates who meet certain criteria, both for humanitarian reasons and to save the state money. Several emails from VICE to Cuomo’s office about Forbis’s possible eligibility for such a program went unreturned. According to the 2015 State Assembly Committee on Correction Annual Report, it costs New York over $100,000 per individual to house elderly inmates in prison. Since he’s been incarcerated, Forbis says he received his hip replacement and endured several other extended hospital stays for an abscess in his foot. He also takes a large regimen of prescription drugs.
A silver lining, as it were, to his incarceration was getting back in touch with his old neighbors in Summit once he had no more need to conceal his identity, though the communication can be bittersweet. While he waits in his cell, he receives one letter after another reporting the death of old friends—15 and counting so far. “Death is poppin' up (or takin' down) all around me,” he writes to VICE.
Most of all, he thinks of the egg lady and dreams of returning to her side before it’s too late. “I’m never going to be apart from her. This doesn’t count. This isn’t real,” he says, sitting in the prison visiting room some 3,000 miles from where his heart remains.
"This," he says again, "is hell.”
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