On the evening of Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017, residents of a country-club neighborhood in Columbia, Missouri, went to bed unaware that one of their neighbors had nearly 1,000 pounds of high-grade Oregon marijuana parked in the driveway outside his home.
The home was being rented by 28-year-old Augustus “Gus” Roberts, the son of a circuit court judge. Under the cover of darkness, several suspects forced their way inside, murdered him, and made off with the weed-filled U-Haul.
The killers didn’t go far, abandoning the U-Haul at the end of the neighborhood’s cul-de-sac. Police arrived to find Roberts outside, near his driveway, dead of an apparent gunshot wound. They also found 94 pounds of weed and 3,000 THC oil pens used for vaping in the trailer and in Roberts’ bedroom closet.
In the year and a half since, nine people have been arrested as a result of the homicide investigation—though none of them has been charged with committing that crime. Instead, law enforcement officials have rounded up a collection of Roberts’ alleged co-conspirators on drug-related counts.
The highest-profile bust was Eapen Thampy, a well-known lobbyist around the state Capitol whose chief issue has been marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform—and who is now accused of being part of a network that distributed more than 2,200 pounds of marijuana over three years. The charges—which stem from the Roberts investigation, according to a DEA agent’s affidavit—could put Thampy in prison for life.
It’s not lost on supporters of marijuana policy reform that Roberts’ death was precisely the type of violence that they believe legalization would prevent. “Once you have organized crime you have people taking matters into their own hands,” says Steve Fox, president of VS Strategies and a longtime D.C.-based marijuana policy reform advocate. “The same issues you had associated with alcohol prohibition in the early part of the last century, with organized crime and violence—those things largely, if not entirely, go away once the substance in question is legal and regulated.”
In 2015, at the age of 31, Thampy founded Heartland Priorities, an organization that lobbies for marijuana legalization. He occupied a distinctive niche in the effort by arguing for reform from a right-wing and Libertarian perspective to a state legislature controlled by a Republican super-majority. He regularly appeared on talk radio throughout the state and beat the drum for individual liberty as a basis for legal weed and for criminal justice and sentencing reform. He’s been photographed with Sens. Rand Paul and Roy Blunt, as well as a former governor and current state attorney general.
“It breaks my heart that this is happening to him,” says Tom Mundell, a Silver Star and Purple Heart recipient who focuses on marijuana reform from a veterans and PTSD perspective. “He was doing a lot to give people who had never had a break in their life the opportunity to have generational wealth through the hemp industry.”
But authorities allege that Thampy had a side hustle to his political work. They claim in the indictment that between January 2015 and September 2018, he was part of a drug distribution network connected to Roberts.
According to a DEA agent’s affidavit, before Roberts’ death, he was receiving marijuana from Oregon via a middleman who had been a DEA informant in the past and who supplied Roberts “with 280 to 350 pounds of marijuana every three to four weeks” for about nine months up until his death.
After Roberts was killed, the middleman began cooperating with the feds again and arranged for an especially large shipment of marijuana to be sent from Oregon to Missouri, according to a DEA agent’s affidavit. Authorities intercepted some 1,800 pounds of high-grade weed from a commercial trailer in Wyoming and arrested Craig Smith of Oregon, Roberts’ alleged supplier.
Among other things, the indictment charges in a separate count that Smith and Thampy sought to sell a smaller amount of marijuana in February of last year.
Authorities have charged seven others, including a Columbia mother and son who allegedly used drug-dealing proceeds to purchase, among other things, a flamethrower. Court documents allege one of the defendants donated $1,000 in drug money to Better Way Missouri, a political action committee represented by Thampy.
Thampy, who is free pending trial next year, declined to comment for this article, and calls to his attorney were not returned.
Even before his arrest, Thampy was a controversial figure for some.
New Approach Missouri is the organization most responsible for getting medical marijuana legalized via a statewide vote last year, and multiple people affiliated with that organization say Thampy ran interference on them and sought to tank the amendment until right before the election, when polling clearly showed it would pass. They believe Thampy viewed the effort as a threat to his career lobbying the state legislature.
One of Thampy’s key issues was curbing civil asset forfeiture, a process in which law enforcement confiscates property it believes was used to facilitate criminal activities. “I don’t know anyone who knows the laws around asset forfeiture the way he does,” Mundell says.
In an ironic twist, the government has now launched a forfeiture action in the case stemming from Roberts’ death. The feds are looking to seize an industrial building in White City, Oregon; a gated estate in Central Point; a parcel of land adjacent to an airstrip in Cave Junction; $100,000 of confiscated cash and a Columbia house worth roughly $250,000.
Dan Russo, the attorney representing Smith, told the Columbia Daily Tribune he believes the case is an example of law enforcement making a “last-ditch attempt to empty the pockets for anyone involved with marijuana on any level” before what many see as the drug’s inevitable legalization at the national level.
Meanwhile, as Thampy, Smith and the others face an uncertain fate, one thing is for sure: For now, at least, someone has gotten away with the murder of Gus Roberts.