On December 7, 2006, members of the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force arrested 71-year-old Myrtle Annette Baldwin. Baldwin, known as “Granny” to her cohorts, supplied the drugs for the Flathead valley’s largest methamphetamine distribution ring.
“She comes across as a very nice little old lady,” says Jim Tilley, Montana’s resident agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency. “She just seemed like a kind—she was like my grandmother.”
But for a number of years, Tilley says, the septuagenarian who belonged more properly in a quilting bee drove from her Kalispell home to California and back with five-pound shipments of meth on a monthly basis.
While the stories of dealers who obtained drugs from Baldwin fit the common perception of meth traffickers as addicts desperate for cash, Baldwin seems a highly unusual suspect. By her own account and as far as law enforcement, her family, and members of her drug ring knew, she was not a user. She had inherited large tracts of valuable land from an uncle, and according to Tilley, she probably only made about $2,000 per month dealing. In fact, it appears she eventually lost money after being ripped off by her accomplices. There are indications Baldwin may have been cooperating with law enforcement all along, but that cannot be confirmed. Only she knows for sure why she chose such a dangerous, illegal activity to pass the time during her golden years.
Baldwin, according to agent Tilley, acted as a courier, driving 1,100 miles from Kalispell to Hayward, Calif. to buy meth from a Mexican drug trafficking network. In recent years the United States has tightened laws regarding products used to manufacture methamphetamine, making it especially difficult to get one of the drug’s key ingredients, ephedrine. Since then, Tilley says, production of the drug has moved to Mexico, where it is made in “super labs,” using ephedrine shipped illegally from China.
The labs stockpile the drug along the Mexican border until it can be brought into either California or Arizona, says Tilley, and eventually delivered to couriers like Baldwin.
Tilley describes the Mexican traffickers as “dangerous people…very dangerous people. Look at all the murders down in Nuevo Loredo, down in Juarez, down in Tiajuana. This is serious money, this is a serious business.”
It would require remarkable nerve for most people to even get within shooting distance of Baldwin’s suppliers, much less negotiate prices with them. But she showed astonishing grit.
While questioning her in court, the U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case obtained details about her interaction with the traffickers.
“How much would you pay for a pound or a half pound?” he asks.
“At first, it was $11,000 a pound, and then he got it down to $9,000 or $4,500 for a half,” Baldwin responds.
“Why did it go down?”
“I thought I was paying too much for it.”
“So you said, ‘I want to pay less?’”
“And your supplier agreed to that?”
Because of her age and unlikely profile, Tilley says Baldwin made a particularly good courier. “Who’s going to stop a little old lady and think she has five pounds of meth in her car?” he wonders. “I mean, come on, it ain’t gonna happen.”
Normally, Tilley says, agents are “looking for the younger guys, a little scragglier, you know, the stereotype.” Once Baldwin got the meth to Montana, she sold it to people who more or less fit that description.
For a time, Baldwin sold most of her meth to Frank Hazel, a 31-year-old convicted burglar living in Kila. Hazel, who worked on and off as an electrician, had moved to the Flathead Valley from Yuba City, Calif. The meth then passed into the hands of Flathead County residents Dallas Koepfli, Damien Nickerson, and Krista Hummer.
Koepfli had been using methamphetamine for 26 years, from the age of 21, but claims he’d never dealt it until he started fixing cars for Hazel in the summer of 2004. At first the transactions seemed normal. Hazel would bring in a car that needed repair. Koepfli would fix it, and get paid for his work.
Eventually though, Koepfli learned that Hazel dealt meth and began bartering work for drugs.
That arrangement worked for a little while, but Koepfli seemed to lose control of his addiction.
“I worked at my shop 24 hours a day,” Koepfli said during court testimony, “So I worked three days straight up, sleep a day, go back to work for three days.”
It took about a month for Koepfli’s habit to outgrow Hazel’s need for automotive work, so Koepfli began selling meth for Hazel to make up the difference. He was by all accounts Hazel’s biggest wholesale customer, moving between $1,200 and $1,600 worth of meth weekly.
Nickerson and Hummer’s roles in the meth ring aren’t quite as clear. Nickerson, now 23, began using meth when he was 15, and had been arrested more than a dozen times in the eight years that followed.
Federal prosecutors portray Nickerson as Hazel’s right-hand-man, delivering drugs to clients for Hazel and riding shotgun in Hazel’s Oldsmobile Bravada on drug deals. A federal jury found Nickerson guilty of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance, but he has appealed the conviction.
Nickerson’s father, Roger, says Hazel and his son were good friends. He says they met in Marion in the winter of 2003 at a local bar.
“Marion’s a pretty small town,” the elder Nickerson says. “You go up to the Hilltop [a Marion bar], play pool—boom, you meet everybody over the course of a couple weekends.”
At first, says Nickerson’s father, the friendship seemed like a good thing.
“When Frank first moved here I know he was clean,” Nickerson says. “He might have done [meth] in the past, but he’d cleaned up. He was working a pretty steady job, and had his head on straight.”
Nickerson says his son looked up to Hazel and hoped to learn to be an electrician from him. “He thought Frank was the kind of guy he wanted to be,” he says.
Damien Nickerson pulled Krista Hummer into Baldwin’s circle in spring of 2004, when Hummer was just 22. At the time she was finishing her high school diploma through an alternative school for teens in Kalispell. She had used meth in the past, but says she was clean when she met Damien. Within weeks of meeting, the two began a relationship and started using meth together. Within a month of their first meeting, Hummer was pregnant with their child, Kayleigh, who was born in March of 2005.
Testifying in court against Nickerson, Hummer said she quit using meth during the pregnancy, partly because she was seeing an obstetrician who tested for drugs.
After giving birth, Hummer says she began using again. Her mother soon kicked her out of their Whitefish home, and Hummer moved into a trailer in Kila with Hazel and Nickerson, leaving the baby behind with its grandmother.
Speaking to the court, Hummer claimed to have been intimately involved with Baldwin’s drug network, keeping a ledger for middleman Hazel and witnessing transactions between Baldwin and Hazel that involved tens of thousands of dollars and multiple pounds of meth. But the government never brought drug charges against Hummer, and no one else has recounted her participation in the ring’s illegal activities.
“Granny” Baldwin started life as Myrtle Annette Search on April 20, 1935, in Parma, Idaho, the 12th of fourteen children. Seven years before, in 1928, her family had moved from Columbia Falls.
“Our dad was a poor farmer,” says Katherine Hochhalder, Baldwin’s 87-year-old sister. “He liked to play in the pool halls and have his drink.” Their mother, she says, contracted rheumatic fever when Hochhalder was 8 years old and suffered poor health afterward.
Unhappiness made life in the Search house unbearable. Hochhalder says, “I left home when I was 17 and got a job, because I wanted to get out of the home situation.”
In 1950, Myrtle married Marvin Baldwin when she was just 15 years old, according to her sister. She never received an education beyond grade school.
Hochhalder says the Baldwins ran a trucking business that hauled gravel and manure. The couple eventually gave birth to four boys, Richard, Randall, Roland and Rodney. On Roland’s 16th birthday in 1970, Marvin Baldwin died of a heart attack. Hochhalder says her sister “flipped” when her husband died, but she carried on to support her sons.
“She kind of led the role of a man,” Hochhalder says, describing how Baldwin drove trucks for about a decade. “And then she bought into a tavern over here in Boise.”
Baldwin bought The Turf Club, just north of Boise, in Garden City, in 1980 with a business partner.
At some point Baldwin assigned her interest in the bar to her second husband, a man named Harry Hanson. The marriage between Hanson and Baldwin lasted just a short time.
The thread of Baldwin’s life after her involvement with The Turf Club becomes difficult to trace until September of 1993, when Nevada authorities arrested her with her son Roland on felony drug charges in Las Vegas. According to Michael Sommermeyer, information officer for the Clark County, Nevada district court, all but the most basic records from that case have been destroyed.
As Hochhalder tells it, Baldwin’s oldest son Richard had been working for a racetrack in Arizona at the time. Before Baldwin prepared to take a trip to visit him, a man she new in Caldwell, Idaho asked her to haul a load of oats to Arizona for his race horses.
“So she took it, got stopped, and there were drugs in it,” Hochhalder says. “So that’s first time she got tangled up that I know of.”
Baldwin pleaded guilty to a felony charge of transporting a controlled substance in 1995, and completed four years probation and 80 hours of community service. Her son Roland was ultimately exonerated.
It would have been shortly after her sentencing in Nevada that Baldwin moved to Kalispell and began caring for her uncle, Walter Serles, on a ranch just north of Glacier International Airport. Family members say Serles’ ex-wife and daughter died years before in a car accident.
“He had nobody,” says Hochhalder. “And so Myrtle was a— well, he called her his angel.”
But Baldwin soon got back into trouble.
On April 11, 1998, a sheriff’s deputy arrested Baldwin after she had sold approximately one-eighth ounce of methamphetamine to a confidential informant.
Baldwin faced a subsequent charge of criminal sale of dangerous drugs.
Three days after her arrest, Serles and Baldwin, as co-trustees of the Serles Trust, signed a bond, putting up a piece of property valued at $173,000 to cover Baldwin’s bail.
Then, nothing happened. The case against Baldwin never proceeded until nine years later, several months after her most recent arrest, when Flathead County District Court Judge Ted Lympus ordered the stale charge dismissed and released the lien on the Serles property. In the meantime, Serles died in 2004.
Given Flathead County’s forgiving approach to Baldwin’s 1998 offense, it’s hard not to wonder if she had been in league with law enforcement somehow during the intervening years. Agent Tilley declined to discuss the possibility, although he did say that Baldwin’s arrest helped bring down bigger fish in the drug world.
Baldwin’s ultimate undoing followed a familiar arc, with users and low-level dealers in her network finding trouble with law enforcement and providing information that guided authorities to her door.
“It’s like the investigations, a lot of times, are always ongoing,” says agent Tilley from his office in Billings. “It’s like a rat’s nest, when you start debriefing someone, sitting down…they give you 14 to 50 people they’ve dealt with in the past five years, when you start going to each of those people, they give you another 14 or 50 people, and then you build your organization.”
At one time, the motley crew of dealers and addicts in orbit around Baldwin seemed about as functional as meth addicts could manage. The drugs were getting sold. Everyone was getting high. There is even mention in court transcripts of barbecues at Frank Hazel’s trailer.
But in 2005, Hazel, Nickerson and Hummer all got arrested, which eventually lead drug agents to Koepfli, who would ultimately bring down Baldwin.
In February of 2005, while investigating a car accident involving Hazel, Lincoln County authorities discovered methamphetamine and charged Hazel with criminal possession of dangerous drugs. With Hazel in custody, Koepfli began going directly to Baldwin for his meth. Drug agents estimate that he sold at least 72 ounces for her during the next year.
Hazel got out of jail shortly after his February bust and resumed selling meth to Koepfli after apparently stealing several pounds of it from Baldwin’s home.
Later that summer, Hazel went to a mandatory monthly meeting at the probation office. According to court testimony provided by Flathead probation officer Paul Parrish, Hazel came into the building, turned in some paperwork, and attempted to leave before actually meeting with an officer. Before he could get away, officers stopped him because they had received information he “was involved with methamphetamine” again, Parrish testified.
At the probation office, Hazel tested positive for methamphetamine use. He was detained, and Parrish checked his car. Nickerson would later admit to police that he was waiting in the car when Parrish approached and asked him to get out and sit on some nearby steps. During the search, Parrish found a black leather case underneath one of the back seats. Before he could unzip the case, Nickerson ran off. Inside the case Parrish found 141 grams of methamphetamine.
Nickerson might have avoided capture if he and his girlfriend, Hummer, had laid low. Instead, they became targets of a bank fraud investigation and eventually pleaded guilty to forging checks, including some stolen from Baldwin.
To hear Baldwin tell it, Nickerson wanted to work directly for her, like Koepfli and Hazel. “Damien, I guess, knew what pickup I drove and he followed me. I was visiting a friend in Kalispell and he followed me there,” Baldwin explained to a prosecutor in court. “I told him to get away from me, I didn’t want anything to do with him.”
“What did he say to you?” the U.S. attorney asked.
“Well, he got back in his vehicle and he give me a bad gesture as he was leaving,” Baldwin said. She explained she didn’t sell to him because she heard that he was “ratting on people.” Nickerson tells the story differently. He claims Baldwin tried to recruit him to deal for her.
It turns out Koepfli was the one Baldwin should have been worried about.
Agents of the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force began investigating methamphetamine sales in the Flathead during the spring of 2006, starting with controlled buys from small-time dealers, the U.S. Attorney’s office says.
On March 17, 2006, an informant helped agents purchase an eighth of an ounce of meth from Koepfli. The following month, undercover agents began meeting directly with Koepfli, and later that summer, he sold them 4 ounces of meth, with a street value of $6,000.
“Agents surveilled Koepfli after ordering methamphetamine from him, and noted that Koepfli went to Baldwin’s home, and when he emerged, he would meet the agents and provide the promised methamphetamine,” documents from the U.S. Attorney’s office say.
In August of 2006, Koepfli voluntarily interviewed with the task force and outlined the workings of Baldwin’s ring. Members of the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force arrested Baldwin on Dec. 7, 2006. Drug agents executed her arrest warrant during a traffic stop, where according to court records, “the defendant spilled on herself and in her vehicle a substance that was suspected to be methamphetamine.”
Authorities arrested Koepfli five days later. At the time, Nickerson and Hummer were locked up on the bank fraud charges, and Hazel was still in custody after the probation office incident. Baldwin pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. Koepfli and Hazel admitted to similar charges.
“That’s the way we like it, because it keeps the case viable,” DEA agent Tilley told the Independent. “Once you go to trial, everything’s in the open, and they’re like little rats, like little cockroaches, they’re running to get out of the light.”
In other words, when potential informants plead not guilty, they have no interest in giving information to law enforcement. But once they’ve pleaded guilty, they have every reason to work with authorities.
Federal law helps Tilley obtain guilty pleas that keep potential informants out of court and talking to drug agents. While the law mandates a minimum of 10 years for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, it leaves a back door for defendants who provide “substantial assistance to authorities.” When that happens, a prosecuting attorney can file a 5K1.1 motion, which allows the sentencing judge to depart from mandatory minimum sentences. By pleading guilty, working with police, and testifying against alleged co-conspirators who deny involvement, people like Baldwin can get years shaved off their sentences, although there are no guarantees.
By law, the motions remain sealed by the court, but Baldwin’s sentence of four years in prison falls well short of the mandatory minimum. Koepfli, on the other hand, was sentenced to over six years, and Hazel 16 years. Hummer avoided prosecution for crimes relating to the sale of methamphetamine. Instead, she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bank fraud, and is serving an 18-month sentence.
Nickerson was the only member of Baldwin’s network to fight the charges against him. A letter dated April 24, written from prison by Frank Hazel to Nickerson’s father, who showed it to the Independent, suggested Hazel would be willing to testify that Nickerson was only a user, and never part of the conspiracy. “I kind of feel like I let [Nickerson] down but there was nothing I could do for him at the time without opening up a can of worms on myself,” Hazel wrote. “Hopefully I can be more helpful when my life is no longer in the court’s hands.”
Hazel’s lawyer, however, urged him to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and he never spoke up for Nickerson. On Sept. 27, a federal jury found Nickerson guilty, and he was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison. He has appealed his conviction.
“Granny” Baldwin declined to speak with the Independent about her life, her motivations, or her crimes. Members of Baldwin’s family, most of whom would not speak on the record to the paper, are at a loss to explain her actions.
“I don’t understand it because I thought she had learned a lesson the first time,” says Baldwin’s sister, Hochhalder, sounding near tears. “I just don’t understand it…Her sons kind of gave up on her because of it.”
Baldwin’s lawyer, Milt Datsopolous of Missoula, sees his client as a lonely old lady desperate for friends. “She was living by herself. Her uncle who she took care of for many years died. And I think she was living alone and was pretty isolated and was brought into this group of people, and I think felt like she was part of a group that cared about her,” Datsopolous says. “I guess she just met them informally and started talking to one or two of them and they recruited her on the basis, I think, that she was a very unlikely participant.”
Baldwin’s cohort Koepfli, who spoke briefly with the Independent about the case, says, “She did it just to do something, to keep busy. That’s what I was told.”
But given her consistent brushes with the law, the theory that Baldwin took up the methamphetamine business and got involved with a dangerous Mexican drug ring simply to pass the time—as an alternative to, say, watching television—seems hard to believe.
“You don’t get five pounds of methamphetamine from a Mexican trafficking organization overnight,” says agent Tilley. “You have to build their trust, you have to work up to that.”
“How she got started?” Tilley asks rhetorically, adding a whimsical note to his voice, “I don’t know. Maybe she got started back in the sixties smoking marijuana and she worked up and who knows?”
“When you arrest someone,” he continues, “they give you a story, and how they got involved with it, is it really that important? It’s the fact that they’re doing it and you caught ’em. She was caught red handed, so all she could do was cooperate or she would get more time in jail.”
Perhaps Tilley’s right, and the reasons don’t matter. Regardless of any explanation she might offer, Baldwin now awaits transport to federal prison, where she will likely stay for the next four years—plenty of time to complete a quilt or two, if she chooses.
Where uncited, facts reported in the following story derive from obituaries, land records, court documents, court transcripts in the trial of United States of America v. Damien Allen Nickerson, and pre-sentence investigation reports.