Slow and Steady Gets the Bust As Turtle's Trail Leads to Drugs

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 1, 2008

From the files of the U.S. Park Police, Incident No. 08-29683: Suspicious vegetation in Rock Creek Park.

The hero of this little crime drama has a brain about the size of a raisin, so of course she has no idea what happened. She's a reptile -- but who cares? There's a drug suspect in custody, so let's credit her with the arrest.

Her name is Turtle No. 72.

And this is her story:

She is an Eastern box turtle, one of 135 counted by researchers in the park in recent years, and one of three puttering in the woods with tiny radio transmitters affixed to their shells so scientists can study their movements. Turtle No. 72, six inches long, roams an area of about 50 acres near the District-Maryland border, meandering no faster than a few hundred feet per hour on her three-inch legs.

As a rule, being a turtle, she minds her own business.

Ken Ferebee, a National Park Service researcher, has been monitoring Turtle No. 72 for seven years, occasionally venturing into the woods to see her. Since Turtle No. 72's purpose in life is limited pretty much to finding a berry or bug to nibble on, there's no telling where in her roughly 50-acre range she might wander on a given day.

A few weeks ago, her little turtle brain guided her to a sun-splashed clearing deep in the woods. And that's where she was on the afternoon of July 14 -- at the northern end of the 1,754-acre main park, far from any trail -- when Ferebee, for the first time in nine days, decided to pay her a visit.

"I was walking in the woods, following the signal with my receiver, trying to find the turtle, and I walked into an area where some large trees had fallen down," he recalled yesterday. "So there's a big hole in the tree canopy, so there's a lot of light getting down to the ground, and there's a lot of vegetation growing there."

He saw Turtle No. 72 in the clearing and moved toward her.

"But as I'm walking, I could see a patch of bare soil that didn't look quite right. And when I got closer, I could tell it had been cleared and some plants had been planted. They looked like they'd been grown somewhere else and then actually replanted in the park."

Suspicious vegetation -- about 10 plants, some four feet tall.

"I could tell they were marijuana plants," said Ferebee, 46. "I've seen pictures of the leaves before. I've actually seen marijuana plants before, too. . . . And I was a little surprised to see them right there. They've been found in the park before, but it's been a long time."

He said, "I called the police to come see, because I knew they'd be interested in that."

A Park Police spokesman, Sgt. Robert Lachance, said yesterday that investigators covertly watched the pot patch from time to time until the alleged grower, a Montgomery County resident, showed up to tend to the plants. The suspect, Isiah Johnson, 19, of 2300 block of Washington Avenue in Chevy Chase, was arrested Wednesday and charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

An investigator, speaking on the condition of anonymity yesterday because the case is unresolved, described Johnson as a college student (it's unclear what school he attends) with no previous arrest record. In terms of criminal history, "he's a nothing, a nobody," the investigator said, adding that Johnson seemed frightened and "was very, very cooperative" during a police interview.

"He's a kid," the investigator said. Johnson was the drummer in an area alt-rock group called Velhalla, which won a battle of the bands at the Montgomery County Executive Building in March 2007.

Johnson was in the Montgomery County jail last night awaiting transfer to the District for a court appearance. The pot in the park amounted to a pound and a half, worth about $2,500 wholesale and roughly $6,500 when peddled on the streets, police said.

"Quite unusual circumstances," Lachance said.

As for Turtle No. 72, age unknown, she is still in the park, munching on insects.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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