MADAWASKA, Maine - He overcame a farm accident that crushed his legs at a young age and forced him to use a wheelchair. He escaped the nagging poverty of this most northern reach of Maine, where his father and grandfather had scratched out livings as potato farmers. He did not settle for the life provided by a government disability check or work at the paper plant that for generations has belched white smoke over the lush St. John Valley and supplied the bulk of its jobs.
If his story were that simple, Michael Pelletier, now 51, could seem a success. After all, it was with his entrepreneurial mind and zeal for risk-taking that Pelletier chose a path that exploited his talents and gave him a comfortable life. Except there was a hitch: It was illegal.
"The boy with no legs," as his associates called Pelletier, according to trial testimony, was the mastermind of a multimillion-dollar drug smuggling operation, paying swimmers to carry thousands of pounds of marijuana across the St. John River from Canada into Maine. With the money he made, prosecutors said, he bought a lakefront house and other real estate, Jet Skis, a tractor, a horse, and more.
"It is striking that you ran a sophisticated drug operation from your wheelchair," US District Judge John Woodcock said in handing Pelletier a life sentence in July 2007. "That makes the court wonder what you could have done if you had turned to legitimate endeavors."
Pelletier was convicted of drug trafficking, money laundering, and Social Security fraud.
But this is a place where legitimate endeavors can mean an unglamorous life. For many of the town's 4,400 residents, work is hard and compensation thin. It has only gotten harder in recent years, as the Fraser Papers plant has cut jobs and small farms have suffered. Nearly a quarter of households now receive food stamps, and 1 of every 5 children lives below the poverty level. But most residents have found ways to make ends meet inside the bounds of the law. For Pelletier that was not enough.
"I think he felt powerful," said Bob Gogan, a neighbor who grew up with Pelletier on the quiet, birch-lined shores of Long Lake, near Madawaska. "It made him the big dude, and him being in a wheelchair, it was like a power trip."
Pelletier, who is appealing the verdict of his trial, declined to be interviewed, according to staff at the Maine State Prison in Warren where he is serving his sentence.
The story unfolds on the country's sparsely populated northeastern edge, where the meandering silver band of the St. John River separates the United States and Canada but little else does. French is spoken as often as English on both sides of the border, and reminders are everywhere of the Acadian culture brought here in the late 1700s by French Acadians fleeing marauding British troops in Nova Scotia.
With tidy, striped fields and church spires spiking the sky, it does not seem to fit the image of a busy drug crossing. But authorities say cross-border drug trafficking has been on the rise as enforcement has tightened in the Pacific Northwest and other border areas and as the potency of Canadian marijuana has increased, driving up prices and demand. Some residents speculate that the valley's fragile economy has also contributed.
Pelletier grew up one of 10 French-speaking siblings on his father's potato farm in St. David, a rural village in Madawaska. He was his father's favorite "because he had the brains," said his older brother, Gerry Pelletier, a 56-year-old carpenter who was one of several family members interviewed for this story. Other family members asked that their names not be published.
One day in the fields when Michael was 11, the two brothers were riding a tractor. Gerry was at the wheel, hoeing potatoes, and Michael had hitched a ride. When the tractor took a turn, Michael fell. Not realizing that his brother had fallen off, Gerry drove over him, crushing him beneath the wheels.
Sick with guilt, Gerry Pelletier felt responsible for his younger brother for years, but Michael never wanted special treatment. He joined the Boy Scouts and earned merit badges alongside the others. He rolled his wheelchair onto the basketball court to play with friends. He made money buying junk - old toasters, a go-cart - fixing it up and selling it for a profit, said his brother. He had a gift for sales.
"He's always been a hustler, and a hell of a talker," Gerry Pelletier said.
For a time in his 20s, Michael Pelletier seemed to be headed for a legitimate career, though a modest one. According to his brother and other family members, he attended the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking near Queens, N.Y., a school founded to give disabled war veterans a trade, and then went to work for jewelers in nearby towns.
But that didn't last, said family members who said they assumed when he eventually stopped work that he began relying on a $500 monthly disability check. The family members said they don't know exactly when he stopped work or when he slipped into the drug trade. But one thing was clear, his brother said. Wealth held a special luster for him.
"He needed more," Gerry Pelletier said. "He couldn't do things for himself, so he needed to pay people . . . With cash, he knows he can make things happen."
There are few clues of how Pelletier began in the drug trade. By 1994, he was convicted on drug trafficking charges. Seven years later he was convicted again. But the jail time he served did not appear to discourage him.
By 2003, according to federal prosecutors, he had recruited an associate, Michael Easler, to swim marijuana across the river from Canada. After Easler stole $300,000 from him and disappeared, Pelletier found another man, Adam Hafford, whom he had met in prison, to replace him.
During the summer and fall of 2004, Hafford later testified in court, he traveled to Canada every week or two for Pelletier, picked up 60 pounds of marijuana packed in duffel bags, and swam it into Maine across the river on his back. Pelletier distributed the drugs in southern Maine, Hafford said, selling it for more than twice the $1,000 per pound he paid for it.
About that time, he was also accumulating outward signs of a new prosperity. He bought the house on Long Lake and other real estate. He bought motorcycles and a tractor. Pelletier lived at the house, with its lakefront porch and garden, with his girlfriend, Kendra Cyr, who said the couple met on the Internet. Between Cyr's three part-time jobs, which included coaching youth basketball and working with disabled people, she made just $24,000 a year, she testified in court. But there was always plenty of money around - paper grocery bags full of cash that she picked up for Pelletier in Portland; stacks of bills left by Easler under pillows in the bedroom.
"Yes, I know, I know it was wrong what I did," testified Cyr, who received immunity from prosecution.
Pelletier bought Cyr's daughter a horse. He renovated the basement for her daughter's bedroom. He bought a truck for his nephew, Joey Pelletier, who calls him "my best uncle." He talked about opening a car dealership, but he never did.
"He would say, 'just one more, one more,' " Gerry Pelletier recalled. "He wanted somebody to love him - that's all Michael wants - and he only found it when he had the money."
But it was already too late for Pelletier. Federal agents had been watching him since 2003, and it would not be long before they closed in. They would also move in on two men who helped distribute the drugs Pelletier smuggled into the country, Anthony Caparotta and Raymond "Rocky" Fogg, both of northern Maine. A federal jury in Bangor convicted them last month of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute marijuana. They have not been sentenced. Another alleged Pelletier associate, John "Scooch" Pascucci, is scheduled to be tried this fall. Easler, who admitted to swimming drugs across the river, previously pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Hafford, another drug swimmer who is in prison on an unrelated gun charge, was granted immunity for testifying against Pelletier. Yet another alleged associate, Ben Dionne, fled the charges against him and has not been found.
Some locals worry that growing economic pressures will only mean more stories like Pelletier's. Al Hebert, a neighbor of Pelletier's now-empty house, where signs announce that the seized government property will soon be auctioned off, is one of them.
"We haven't begun to hit the tip of the iceberg with crime," he said.
"It's only going to get worse, and not just here, but any northern place where you take away the mill and you have a ghost town."
Jenna Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.