Johnny Boone, the 'Godfather of Grass' and Cornbread Mafia leader, dies (2024)

Stephanie KuzydymLouisville Courier Journal

Omerta.

It's the Italian word for "code of silence."

And it's tattooed on the back of Kentucky's most notorious marijuana-growing ringleader.

But while secrets around the Cornbread Mafia will forever be rooted in Marion County, there is now one undeniable fact about its most high-profile resident.

The Godfather of Grass is gone.

A good ol' boy from Kentucky, he tried to make a living to put bread on the table and turned that living into the largest marijuana farming operation in U.S. history.

John Robert "Johnny" Boone, known as the Godfather of Grass for his role as the leader of the Cornbread Mafia, one of the nation’s largest domestic-producing marijuana syndicates, died Friday in Marion County. He was 80.

Joe Keith Bickett, one of many central Kentuckians convicted in federal court in Louisville for his role in the infamous Cornbread Mafia, confirmed that Boone died Friday night.

Boone passed at the Village of Lebanon, a nursing home in Lebanon, at 11:11 p.m.

He is survived by his wife, Marilyn Fenwick Boone; a daughter, Robbie (Randall) Cox of Springfield; three sons, John Robert Boone Jr. of Campbellsville, and Gene Boone and Jessie Boone, both of Springfield; his sister, Julie (Larry) Griffey of Lexington; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren

The visitation is Monday from 4 to 7 p.m. and Tuesday from 8 to 11 a.m. at the River of Life Community Church in Springfield, followed by the funeral at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

"Johnny was kind of a visionary in the cannabis world. He held his guns on what he believed and that’s just the way he was," Bickett said. "What we did back in the '80s and even earlier, which was frowned on somewhat, has now come full circle and is pretty well accepted in society today."

Marijuana business once spread across 9 states

Although high-profile law enforcement raids involving Boone happened across decades, Kentucky Secretary of State records for the last six years show a business was incorporated called Bickett & Boone – Cannabis, LLC.

Although Boone’s name is not on any of the official documents for the agriculture crop production business in Raywick, Kentucky, Bickett said he was involved in a new portion of the marijuana business.

Boone is wearing a gray ballcap with "Bickett & Boone" stitched in green in the photo Bickett posted of him on his social medial.

The business produces “organically grown CBD products,” per its website.

“The term ‘Cornbread Mafia’ was coined over 40 years ago on Sept. 15, 1978 by one of our Kentucky growers when we reclaimed one of our marijuana fields that had been seized by local law enforcement,” the Bickett & Boone CBD website states. “The name stuck and it is still with us today. ... Now, many of the founding members, their families and friends are working in the hemp industry producing marijuana’s legal cousin …”

The government once said theCornbread Mafia— a group of mostly Kentuckians— pooledmoney, machinery, knowledge and labor to produce $350 million in pot seized in nine states.

Boone "guarded his fields with rottweilers whose vocal chords had been surgically removed, so they could attack silently," the Courier Journal reported in 2017. "To fend off 'rippers' who might try to steal his crop, his crew set booby traps, including fishhooks hung at eye level, trip wires tied to dynamite, and live rattlesnakes tied to poles.

"And Boone, despite a white, bushy beard that made him look like Santa Claus, did his business armed with semiautomatic TEC-9 handguns and AR-15 rifles."

Boone spent the last four years of his life out of the headlines after a lifetime of creating them.

COVID leads to early prison release

While his criminal record stretches to the 1960s, he received an early release from federal prison in Ohio in May 2020, after he asked for compassionate release following the death of nine men from COVID-19, the highest of any federal prison at that point in the coronavirus pandemic.

Nearly 150 inmates and staff were infected with COVID-19 at Federal Correctional Institution, Elkton, when Boone asked Western District of Kentucky senior judge Charles Simpson to release him after serving 42 months of a 57-month sentence for growing 1,000 or more marijuana plants.

But that was just his last in a long line of convictions.

In the 1980s, Boone was convicted for possession with intent to distribute pot, a five-year sentence, and unlawful manufacture of 1,000 plants or more, receiving a 20-year sentence and paroled in 1999.

That 20-year sentence was for running a marijuana operation from which, on a cold, snowy October night in 1987 in central Minnesota, federal agents seized 185 tons of marijuana. In all, that 1987 raid uncovered the biggest marijuana-farming operation in the United States: 27 farms, 25 of which were outside of Kentucky across eight Midwestern states – Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Sixty-four Kentucky residents were charged, including 49 Marion County residents.

The final processed street value? $364 million.

The entire illegal cooperative, officials found, could be traced back to "one tiny rural enclave in central Kentucky."

'Moonshine mentality'

“It all went back to a handful of good ol’ boys in Marion County,” a 1989 piece in Courier Journal Magazine said.

Then-Assistant U.S. Attorney John Lee, who helped prosecute the case for the Minnesota raid, said the Kentuckians had a “moonshine mentality.”

“They came from an area where moonshine had been prevalent, and such 'live and let live' attitudes had easily led moonshiners’ children and grandchildren into marijuana with little guilt or stigma attached,” the Courier Journal reported.

So how did it work?

A farm would be rented or bought. The land would be plowed. A crop of corn sown.

Then, scattered among the corn, marijuana would be planted “in fields as large as 20 acres.”

Sometimes the marijuana was planted directly among the corn. Sometimes it was grown in a small greenhouse and then planted in the rows.

“Once it was planted, it would be watched inconspicuously, often by two men or by a man and a woman posing as husband and wife,” The Courier Journal reported.

Another farm might be rented to process the marijuana.

Kentucky had its own history of raids on the Cornbread Mafia, like in 1983, when more than 20 Kentuckians were arrested for growing about 22,000 plants on farms in Hart County.

In November 1986, Kentucky State Police raided a Woodford County farm that was processing marijuana. That raid netted 4,600 pounds of marijuana. A dozen people were arrested.

That was the last large processing center of its kind in the state.

In 1986, Kentucky was the nation’s leading grower of marijuana, but stiff penalties and enforcement within the commonwealth led to smaller, more secluded operations.

With the raids, seizures and arrests continuing, one thing came clear to officials: the uniform uncooperativeness.

“In fact, the unwillingness of Kentuckians to talk would become almost legend …,” The Courier Journal wrote in 1989.

But authorities identified Boone as the ringleader.

In a courtroom speech in Minnesota during his April 1988 conviction, his speech enhanced the “moonshiner” image back in Kentucky.

“With the poverty at home, marijuana is sometimes one of the things that puts bread on our tables,” Boone said. “We were working with our hands on earth God gave us. I don’t understand why the law would take us for so long.”

His then-girlfriend Mary Jo McDonald, who was the camp cook, said before her sentencing: “We’re just good ol’ country folk and we’re not trying to do nobody no harm.”

She was sentenced to five years.

Johnny Boone beloved by community

Boone later spent eight years on the run before he was found in 2016, outside Montreal, Canada, living under an assumed name.

He was beloved and respected by those in the community, buying air conditioners for schools.

Former U.S. Marshal Rick McCubbin told The Courier Journal in 2017 that the community repaid Boone with their loyalty.

The Courier Journal wrote the following:

"When deputy marshals tried in vain to find him during the eight years he spent on the lam, they ran smack into a wall of silence in his former haunts like Springfield and Loretto. 'They were very honest,' McCubbin said. 'They said they wouldn’t tell where he was even if they knew.'

"According toJames Higdon, a Lebanon native, and author of 'The Cornbread Mafia: A Homegrown Syndicate’s Code of Silence and the Biggest Marijuana Bust in American History,' Boone was born in Washington County and raised by his grandfather, a veteran of Prohibition who learned to supplement his family income with moonshining and bootlegging and whatever else seemed necessary to keep the farm afloat.

"Higdon’s account was published in 2012 when Boone was on the run.

"As a 15-year-oldin 1958, Boone won the state 4-H championship in sheep breeding, earning a trip to Chicago for the national 4-H congress, and two years later he won another championship, for tobacco growing.

"Graduating high school in 1961 as a three-time football letterman and in the top one-sixth of his class, he plannedto enter the University of Kentucky,wrote the Springfield Sun, according to Higdon’s book.

"Instead, Boonestarted a family and stayed on the farm, and by the 1970s, he 'had channeled his 4-H skills into a new agricultural challenge: raising the best breed of pot ever grown in Kentucky –a variety that High Timesmagazine later named "Kentucky Bluegrass,”' the book says.

"For a time, he grew pot in Belize, which led to his first bust –and a five-year hitch in federal prison.

"In 1987, after police flew over a 355-acre farm in Minnesota –and sawtwo huge rectangles of green below, each the length of four football fields –they raided the place.

"Boone led three squad cars and five officers on a chase, knowing he couldn’t get away, but selflessly allowing his workers to escape, Higdon wrote in his book.

"When he was caught and asked his name, he responded, 'Charles Grass.'”

Stephanie Kuzydym is an enterprise and investigative reporter. She can be reached atskuzydym@courier-journal.com.Follow her for updates at@stephkuzy.

Johnny Boone, the 'Godfather of Grass' and Cornbread Mafia leader, dies (2024)

FAQs

Where is Johnny Boone now? ›

Leader of Cornbread Mafia in Kentucky dies 4 years after release from prison. According to author Jim Higdon, John Robert Boone died Friday night at an assisted care facility.

Who ran the Cornbread Mafia? ›

(TNS) John Robert “Johnny” Boone, who once ran a multi-state marijuana-growing operation known as the Cornbread Mafia, has died at age 80. Boone died Friday night, Joe Keith Bickett wrote in a Facebook post Saturday. Boone, known to some as the “Godfather of Grass” and the “King of Pot,” was something of a legend.

How much money did the Cornbread Mafia make? ›

By the end of 1987, the DEA had raided marijuana farms in nine more states connected to the Cornbread Mafia syndicate, seizing 182 tons of marijuana (worth $350 million at the time) and arresting more than 80 — most from Marion County.

What does the term Cornbread Mafia mean? ›

A Homegrown Syndicate

Beginning in June 1989, newspaper headlines blaring the phrase “Cornbread Mafia” ran around the globe — all to describe a network of 70 outlaw Kentucky farmers busted on a network of 30 farms, with what law enforcement claimed was 200 tons of marijuana.

Who is Johnny Boone in Kentucky? ›

John Robert Boone (September 22, 1943 – June 14, 2024) was an American farmer who was a leader of the Cornbread Mafia in the 1980s, one of the largest domestic marijuana syndicates in American history. He has been referred to as the "Godfather of Grass". Springfield, Kentucky, U.S.

Is John Boone related to Daniel Boone? ›

John Boone was the first cousin of the more famous Boone, Daniel. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1727 but spent his childhood with his uncle and aunt, Squire and Sarah, after the early death of his mother.

Is the Cornbread Mafia still active? ›

The name stuck and it is still with us today. We went on to become the largest domestic marijuana group in United States history. Now, many of the founding members, their families, and friends are working in the hemp industry producing marijuana's legal cousin, hemp.

What states have Cornbread Mafia? ›

Between 1985 and 1989, 70 Kentuckians were accused of growing 182 tons of marijuana on 29 farms in 10 states, including Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Michigan, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas, which federal prosecutors considered to be the "largest domestic marijuana producing organization in the nation." By ...

Are there any movies about the Cornbread Mafia? ›

FBI Agent Kurt Cadell and his partner Roy fight through a series of adventures in the 1980s and 90s to take down the ruthless Dixie Mafia.

What is a Mafia side chick called? ›

goomar or goomah: Americanized form of comare, a Mafia mistress. goombah: an associate, especially a senior member of a criminal gang.

Is the Cornbread Mafia the same as the Dixie Mafia? ›

Often described as the “Cornbread Cosa Nostra,” the Dixie Mafia first emerged in the American South in the 1960s. Unlike the traditional Mafia, this group was not united by ethnic heritage and had no known hierarchy or oath.

What does eating cornbread mean? ›

Cornbread brings good fortune

Rich in flavor, yellow in color, this universally beloved bread has been compared to the color of gold and thought to bring good fortune and wealth with each tasty mouthful. Whether or not you're one for superstitions, these foods do hold practical application.

Did Daniel Boone have a son? ›

In 1795, Boone and his wife moved back to Kentucky, living on land owned by their son Daniel Morgan Boone in what became Nicholas County.

Was Daniel Boone in Boone NC? ›

The community that is now the county seat of Watauga County, previously known simply as Councill's store, was named Boone in 1894 in honor of Daniel Boone who spent many overnight hunting trips there.

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