Library audience likes the taste of ‘Cornbread’

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James Higdon, the author of Cornbread Mafia, the popular book about the nation’s largest drug bust, packed the house at the Shelby County Public Library.

By Lisa King

If you’d like to settle down with a good book, chock full of colorful characters, such as  moonshiners, long-haired, pot-growing Vietnam veterans, and even a man so scary everybody started locking their doors at night after he moved to town, you might want to check out The Cornbread Mafia, which was published last year.


Surprisingly enough, though, the book is not a work of fiction, an observation made Thursday night when the author, James Higdon, appeared before a packed crowd at the Shelby County Public Library to talk about the book he wrote about the biggest marijuana bust in American history, a 1989 event that originated in Marion County and encompassed 10 states and ended up in more than 100 arrests.

Higdon’s appearance and his popular book drew to the library several Shelby County residents who had Marion County ties and a homegrown interest in his story, including retired Shelby County High School teacher Linda Tharp, who grew up there.

Tharp said she knew most of the characters in the book and was amused when she heard people say that some of the characters in the book were so outlandish that “they had to be made up.”

Higdon laughingly agreed.

“Fiction has to be plausible enough that it has to be something that could actually happen,” he said. “There is no such burden in nonfiction.”

Stewart Shirley, a former Shelbyville Police chief, said he found the enormously popular book, which he received as gift last Christmas, fascinating from a law enforcement perspective.

“I loved it,” he said.  “When I was in the police academy in eight-four, they were talking about the Cornbread Mafia then, and I didn’t know anything about it. I was just a young recruit. “

Stewart said he thought it was hilarious that the term Cornbread  Mafia was given to the marijuana and drug ring in those days by law enforcement.


The cover boy

Some in the crowd expressed a momentary interest in Garland Russell, the “crazy man” who scared everybody into locking their doors – Higdon described him as having two speeds, “easygoing and nuclear bomb” – but most queries centered on the main character of the book, Johnny Boone, who lived on a farm just outside Springfield in Washington County.

Boone, a Vietnam War era ex-con, went on the run in 2008 to avoid prison after being busted again for growing pot just 6 years after getting out of prison in 2002. He had served a 15-year federal sentence from a bust in 1989.

While doing research for his book, Higdon said he struck up a friendship with Boone, a ringleader of the “mafia,” a fact that fascinated the audience. Boone, although not as wild as Russell, was nonetheless what some people in the audience from Marion County called very intimidating at best.

“I spent a couple of days a week with him for over a year,” Higdon said, words that no doubt caused the audience to contrast Higdon’s clean-cut appearance and scholarly mannerisms – he’s the son of state Sen. Jim Higdon of Lebanon – with the book’s cover photo of the burly, long-haired, bearded Boone.

“We hung out a lot, and I really liked him,” Higdon said. “I would go to his house, and if the gate was unlocked, I went in, and if not, I left.”

To a question of why Boone would disclose sensitive information to Higdon, especially when he was about to go on the lam, the author replied, “I think it was because he knew it was going to come out anyway and that was his way of having some control over what was written.”


Drawing attention

People wanted to know why Boone’s eyes were blacked out on the book’s cover, when he was identified by name.

“I started writing this book while he was a fugitive,” Higdon told the mesmerized observers. “I already had the photo, and I wanted to use it, but not to get him caught at a Springfield drive-through.”

The photo was the reason he was subpoenaed by law enforcement, Higdon said.

“They [U.S. marshals] started asking me questions, and I said, ‘I’m not going to answer those questions.’ I’m a reporter. I’m not going to give up my sources.”

But Higdon, who has worked for The Courier Journal and The New York Times, was let go.

“The prosecutor suddenly realized that maybe they hadn’t dotted all their i’s,” he said.

One person remarked that he thought that one thing that made the book so popular is that people in most communities could identify with the goings-on in Marion County.

“You’ve hit upon a theme that is a tremendous problem all across Kentucky,” Higdon said.


Why Marion?

Tharp said one reason why Marion County had so many problems with drugs and alcohol was because all the surrounding counties were dry, so everyone flocked to its nightclubs and liquor stores.

“Hundreds of teens from the surrounding dry counties would descend upon the west end of Lebanon every Saturday night for a night of drinking and partying,” she said.

Despite the abundance of nightclubs, most of which have closed, Tharp said Lebanon also had its share of upstanding citizens.

“Some have said [after reading the book] that the people there must be terrible people, but quite the contrary,” she said. “I am very proud of my Marion County heritage.”