Up In Smoke

People in Madison love their councilman. Even if he is a drug dealer.

Larry Buck
Larry Buck's elderly mom and dad answered the door to find two cops standing on their front step.

"Is Larry here?" asked Lake County Narcotics Lieutenant Ed Ebert.

Their house was as likely a place to find Buck as any. A local carpet-cleaner who also served on the Madison Village City Council, Larry lived next door to his parents.

"We need to talk to him," Ebert said gently.

Moments later, Buck appeared at the doorway. The 50-year-old had been giving his parents a complimentary carpet-cleaning.

"Larry, I have a warrant for your arrest," Ebert said, again gently. There was no need to take caution with Buck, whose small, thin frame and droopy eyes made him about as intimidating as a turtle.

Buck didn't say much, just turned and put his wrists together. He'd managed to hide his little side business from his parents since high school.

"He's a good boy!" cried his mother, as her son ducked his head into the cage of the police cruiser.

The Village of Madison is a dusty photo album, a place that conjures warm memories, even if you've never been there.

The flag-lined boulevard of State Route 528 opens up on a '50s-era Main Street, as perfectly preserved as a frozen wedding cake. There are three restaurants to choose from, but you can get liver and onions at any of them.

Larry has lived in the town since he was three. He and his wife, Rene, live in a sprawling ranch home on Main Street, next door to Buck's aging parents. Buck even named his cat Madison in honor of his hometown.

Everyone knows Buck. He's the guy who cleaned their carpets or put down the tiles in their offices. They listened to him pine for his old hot rod, which he regretfully traded in for a more practical Chevy SUV.

They called him at his "council office" -- really, it was just his cell phone -- to complain about a barking dog or loud motorcycle traffic on Main Street.

When big stone trucks were throwing rocks into Jennifer Bucks' yard, she called Buck. "It hasn't happened since," she says.

"He's a regular guy who cares about the same things we do," continues Bucks, who works at the Painesville Municipal Court. "What he does in his personal time, I have no idea."

At Quigley's Squarerigger Saloon, all the regulars know Larry Buck. They clutch Seneca cigarettes between calloused, paint-stained fingers as they sip from glasses of Genesee draught.

"I know you been askin' around at Duffy's," a drunken, middle-aged brunette tells a reporter. "No one's gonna degrade Larry, 'cause he's a good guy."

At the Wagon Wheel, a pirate ship of a bar attached to a liquor mart down by Lake Erie, no one wants to talk about Buck's bust.

"Do you know Larry Buck?" a reporter asks a towering railroad worker, whose brow hangs over his face like a faded awning over a dilapidated shack.

"Sure do," he says, swallowing an icy gulp of his Coors Light.

"Would you talk to me about him?"

"Nope," he sneers, squinting. "Why don't you go do a story 'bout them guys in Washington? Stop messin' round in small towns."

Lieutenant Ed Ebert has the catbird-seat grin of a man nearing retirement. He reclines his small frame in his office chair as if it were a lawn chair on a Florida beach.

As Ebert looks back on a long career of busting dope dealers with Lake County Narcotics, Buck doesn't stand out much. In fact, he fits the profile exactly.

"Just an average, everyday guy," Ebert says.

Ebert says he's known for years that Buck was dealing. Back in the '90s, when Buck was working as a meter reader for the city of Painesville, an anonymous tip claimed that he was shipping pounds of pot from somewhere down south, but the informant offered scant details, Ebert recalls.

Ebert sent some agents to drive past Buck's house, looking for suspicious activity. That came up dry.

Years passed. Buck retired from meter-reading after 22 years of service. He started a carpet-cleaning and floor-covering business out of a pole barn behind his house. When a vacancy appeared on the village council in 2001, he decided to take a shot at helping to run his hometown.

He campaigned door-to-door, handed out yard signs. As the vote tallies came in on election night, it was a nail-biter, but the final count put Buck as the winner.

"I will be on call for the citizens," Buck told the Lake County Tribune after the win. "That's what I'm going to do, is work for the citizens."

But in a town smaller than some summer camps, rumors have a way of following you.

Steve B. -- who asked that Scene not print his last name -- remembers Buck as the friendly dope dealer in high school.

Steve was a freshman at Madison High when Buck was a senior. Three decades later, Steve still regales the pool sharks at Duffy's bar with stories punctuated by his pronounced stuttering.

"He was the g-g-g-g-go-to guy if you wanted to buy pot," Steve says when asked about Buck. "He'd s-s-s-s-sell it t-t-t-t-to anybody."

Asked whether he feels Buck was doing a public service, Steve thinks for a second, then says, "I would go on r-r-r-r-record as saying, 'Hell, yes!'"

Steve seems to be growing uncomfortable with the interview, or maybe just with people's uneasy eyes on him.

"You're p-p-p-p-puttin' words in my mouth, and I d-d-d-d-d-don't much appreciate it," he says abruptly, his voice growing suddenly irritated.

"I g-g-g-got somethin' for you," he adds. He then lifts himself off his barstool, squints one eye shut and pushes out a fart so foul it sounds like someone pulling a boot out of a mud pit.

"That's right, Steve," approves a lanky blonde at the other side of the bar.

If the charges against Buck are true, then he's come a long way since selling nickel bags to the sophomores.

Sergeant Jeff Orr of the Trumbull-Ashtabula-Geauga Drug Task Force started investigating Buck two years ago, after a suspected marijuana buyer was tailed to the councilman's home.

Orr called Ebert, who set up hidden surveillance cameras across the street from Buck's house.

The tapes caught buys going down on a regular basis, police say. And the dealers coming and going from Buck's were some "big players," Orr says.

Orr sent undercover agents to infiltrate Buck's operation. They made a few buys, but the paltry quantities -- all under a pound -- weren't even enough to guarantee jail time for Buck.

Buck kept promising he could get more -- up to 100 pounds -- once his friend and real-estate partner, Charlie Walters, got out of the joint, says Orr.

Walters, who invested with Buck in a building on Main Street, was arrested back in 2004 after he was pulled over with three pounds of brick weed in his trunk. He spent a year in prison and was released last April.

Like Buck, Walters is middle-aged and well-off. He lives out in neighboring Austinburg, in a stately brick farmhouse on a plot of land the size of a football field.

Lieutenant Ebert says that's the norm.

"The guys that have been dealing in the large amounts have been around for a long time," says Ebert. "We're talking guys in their late 40s, 50s, and 60s . . . They keep a low profile. They don't flaunt their money with fancy cars and jewelry."

Shannon, a curvy 21-year-old Madison resident who was nestled with friends at Duffy's on a recent night, wasn't surprised by the accusations against Buck.

"I have like 10 friends from high school whose dads do it," she says, talking about weed as if it were Rogaine. "You'd never know it by looking at them."

Once, at a friend's home, Shannon saw her friend's dad cutting up 75 pounds of brick pot for sale, she says.

Once pot gets smuggled across the border from Mexico, where most of it is grown, the tightly packed bricks are trucked in tractor trailers holding up to 2,000 pounds. The trucks head east, usually stopping off in Chicago, where the weed gets divvied up into smaller trucks that crisscross the country on their way toward the Atlantic. Ohio, conveniently located along I-90 and the turnpike, is a major corridor.

Buck, says Orr, was a "silent partner" in the distribution chain.

"He was just a money man," says Orr. "Somebody else would go get the drugs, and [Buck] would get his share of them."

In January, Orr was getting impatient waiting for Walters to get out of prison and supply the truckload of pot that would lead to a big bust, so the sergeant went ahead and made his move.

On a bitter-cold Tuesday night, Buck drove to a supplier's home in Willoughby to pick up two pounds of marijuana, says Ebert, who worked with Orr on the bust. When Buck returned home around 10:30, he drove his SUV down the dark, snaking path back to the barn, where he kept an eight-foot-high safe.

What Buck didn't know was that five cruisers full of drug agents were hiding in the shadows. They walked up behind him as he got out of his car.

Buck seemed dazed as the agents pulled the heaping bags of marijuana from his truck, Ebert says. The officers scoured Buck's home, finding his personal stash in a baggy and a pipe lying out on a table.

The agents left him a free man that night, but came back three days later with handcuffs. Buck was arrested at his parents' house and charged with felony trafficking in marijuana.

Buck's trial is scheduled for August 28. It's likely that if convicted, he'll get off with a fine and won't serve any jail time. But he will have to give up his council seat.

Being nabbed in a drug raid usually doesn't bode well for a career in politics. But "Madisonians," as some residents call themselves, have been especially forgiving, if not utterly uninterested.

On the steps of Village Hall during a recent night's council meeting, the smoking ladies, usually a wealth of axe-in-the-back gossip, suddenly went into lawyer mode when asked about Buck.

"I think Larry Buck's a nice guy," said Kathy Lynn, a sassy blonde who owns Penguin Heating & Cooling next door. "I don't know what he's done and what he didn't, and it's for the courts to figure out."

Besides, there are bigger issues to worry about. Like the eBay scandal.

Susan Quayle, a redheaded high school secretary, claims that the former village administrator, John Sample, was accessing his eBay account at the office, on the village's clock.

"He'll say he was selling village equipment, but he was really selling fish finders," says Quayle, crossing her arms and pursing her lips.

"Bun warmers!" chirps Kathy Lynn, flicking the ash off the tip of her cigarette.

With his bald head, bulging biceps, and one-sided smirk, Sample bears a passing resemblance to Popeye's nemesis Bluto. "Mr. Madison," as he was once known, is well accustomed to being a target. He ran the Village for 25 years.

"Big fucking deal," he says of the eBay allegations. "That's the shit they hang their hat on?"

Sample's tenure as administrator was marked by his teakettle temper and locker-room humor. Last year, after several embarrassing incidents -- the most notable being a sexual-harassment suit filed by two female clerks who claimed that Sample had shown them photos of cattle having sex -- council decided that the Village was better off without Sample. Four members, Buck included, joined forces to push Sample into retirement. As a going-away present, they gave him a $110,000 severance package.

It was a short exile. Sample still comes to council meetings regularly, and Mike Evangelista, the soft-spoken mayor, still asks him for his input.

And that irks people like Kathy Lynn.

"We just want him to crawl back under that rock he came out of," she says of Sample.

Buck's arrest may have been the highlight of Sample's year. When he saw the secretary of Village Hall recently, he quipped, "Know where to get any pot around here?"

Buck is strangely quiet during council meetings these days.

He has ignored repeated requests by Mayor Evangelista to resign temporarily, until the conclusion of his trial in late August, although he does voluntarily abstain from votes on police matters.

Buck sits hunched behind his nameplate at the podium, as if he's at Quigley's and someone turned on the lights for last call. At one council meeting, he's the only member who declines to give a report at the end. When roll is called, Buck answers, "Here," but other than that, says not a word.

It almost seems as if Buck himself wonders when people are going to start paying attention to him. For now, he's happy to be invisible.

The TV cameras have given up on the seemingly sexy story of the councilman's double life. When the local stations visited the Village council meeting after Buck's arrest, the only sound bites were from angry residents complaining about Sample and the police department.

Buck, who was sitting in the Lake County Jail, wasn't mentioned once at the standing-room-only meeting.

Main Street glistens under the amber street lamps as participants at a recent council meeting pour onto the Village Hall steps.

Buck steps out into the muggy night and fires up a smoke. A dozen lighters flicker along with his. He leans casually against the railing as the gadflies offer their standard post-meeting recap.

Occasionally, the citizens look to Buck for his reaction to their complaints about a bogus speeding ticket or crooked zoning variance. He offers a chuckle, a nod, some subtle affirmation that he agrees with them.

A reporter approaches, shakes Buck's hand, and asks for an interview. But before Buck can answer, several villagers cut in, each with his own version of the "real story" in Madison.

Buck, taking advantage of the distraction, nods to the smokers and quietly slips away.

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