Intimidating? Copter may have encircled Cobbs pre-trial

Last fall, Philip Cobbs expressed terror after an assault weapon-carrying team of about 10 officers raided his southeastern Albemarle farm after a helicopter crew claimed to spot two marijuana plants from 500 feet. On the day before Cobbs went to court to fight the resulting possession charge, a helicopter again circled over his yard, an action he considers harassment.

"I was pretty shaken up," says Cobbs, who managed to snap some photos of the aircraft that he says circled low over his 39 acres for three to four minutes on July 17.

Cobbs, who served as a meteorologist in the Navy, describes a dark-colored, unmarked, military-style copter, "similar to the one from last year."

According to Albemarle police spokesman Darrell Byers, July 17 was the annual marijuana eradication day in which a multi-jurisdictional, helicopter-equipped law enforcement team surveils the ground and then (without warrants) dispatches armed officers to seize illegal plants.

But what about the perception that police were harassing Cobbs by hovering in his airspace the day before his high-profile trial?

"We don't have a helicopter," says Byers. "It's the State Police."

Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller, however, denies such involvement. "No Virginia State Police personnel nor Virginia State Police aircraft," Geller says in an email, "have been circling Mr. Cobbs’ residence or property."

Three Virginia State Police special agents were subpoenaed to spend July 18 at the Cobbs jury trial (the second time they'd had to appear because Cobbs appealed his General District Court conviction); and one of those, Senior Special Agent Keith Kincaid, who handles the pot program for this area's division of the State Police, declined to comment about the pre-trial flyover.

But to Cobbs, the circling copter's purpose was clear: to intimidate him. And he says it's not an isolated act.

"This is the fourth time they've done this," says Cobbs. "There's no reason for a military helicopter to be circling my house."

Cobbs isn't the first citizen feeling haunted by ganja-hunting helicopters. In 2004, members of the Twin Oaks commune in Louisa reported that a low-flying copter at treetop level scared one woman so badly she curled into a fetal position.

The whirling craft turned out to be a Virginia National Guard helicopter under the direction of the Virginia State Police. Guard spokesman Cotton Puryear confirms that the Guard provides helicopter support to the State Police, but refers inquiries to the State Police.

"We don't buzz people's houses," insists State Police spokeswoman Geller.

The airborne pot-spotting program– dubbed GIANT, for Governor's Initiative Against Narcotics Trafficking– was launched under then Governor Doug Wilder as the War on Drugs heated up in the early '90s. Since then, the American desire to keep pot illegal has fallen, with a Rasmussen survey released in May showing that 56 percent now prefer legalization and regulation.

Taylor Thornley, Governor Bob McDonnell's spokesperson, could not immediately respond about whether the chief executive supports this program of overhead surveillance and warrantless searches on Virginia citizens, but she does clarify the money trail.

"There is no state funding appropriated for the GIANT program," says Thornley. "The majority of the funding comes from DEA. The State Police general budget covers any additional operational and personnel costs associated with the projects."

According to Albemarle's Sergeant Byers, the July 17 GIANT op netted 314 plants in Albemarle, with a single arrest pending.

As for the timing of the mysterious chopper over Cobbs' farm one day before he went to court, John Whitehead at the Rutherford Institute, which oversaw Cobbs' successful defense, says, "It sounds like harassment."

16 comments

DEFUND this GIANT waste of money !

If your local PD looks like the military= DEFUND the PD until they cannot afford to play with TOYS !

This is common practice in southern Albemarle this summer. Copters have circled my property in Schuyler at very low altitude several times in the last 2 weeks, and I have heard similar reports from friends in Esmont and Scottsville. Its very aggressive and unsettling to the people on the ground.
Its widespread and not isolated to Mr Cobb.

And Corrine Gellers statement that they dont buzz peoples houses is ridiculous. My garden is 50 feet from my house. When a helicopter is hovering and circling over your garden about 150 ft off the ground for 45 seconds, its pretty intimidating.

People always make issue when they are discomforted in some way. If the discomfort were from growers or dealers in your area, selling drugs to your children- you would complain about that. While the mode of searching for drugs may not be the best it is better than the end result of not caring if the area is over run with drugs and dealers.
Think about it before passing judgement.

It's just like a local prominent (now retired) attorney and a local magistrate (now retired)once told me, "They're not finished with you yet!" And they were so right! Once you beat these guys in court and sue them, they never go away. It's an ego thing.

As soon as my lawsuits against local enforcement were over in 2003, it was less than two years they were knocking on my door again with another false charge in 2005. Once again thrown out of court. Once again lawsuits filed. Just finished all the resulting lawsuits again in 2010.

Are they finished with me yet? NO! Are they finished with Cobbs yet? NO!

Its not like they are searching for crack labs. If a few folks in rural southern Albemarle are growing some outdoor weed its not really the whole area being "overrun by drug dealers".

I saw one of these teams at the Cville airport getting ready to go out on a helicopter. They were so grossly over equipped, you would have thought they were going after Bin Laden.

The Drug War is such a colossal waste of resources. Think how much money could be directed toward schools and other necessary entities if we didn't have obnoxious cops flying around over farms. Unfortunately, privatization of prisons has created a prison industry lobby, which will work very hard to keep things like pot illegal.

@Gasbag, first sorry you have been through all this and continue to and you are absolutely right. Now, if law enforcement was on the tail of say a rapist, child molester or a murderer, like they are over folks growing pot perhaps we would have some unresolved crimes here solved? I can think of many murders of young women in this area that need that closure.

I don't advocate breaking the law, but I would advocate realizing that the War on Drugs is a waste of time, resources and is not working. Our CIA went into South American and took out the Colombians and now we have something so much worse with the Mexican Drug Gangs.

My mother always said they needed to go to the root of the problem - why is the demand so high in this country?

Gasbag - there is a term for those who use lawsuits to harass - "vexatious litigant" and courts can recognize this and prevent them from further filings. Sometimes those in law feel they have the power and it is nice if the law pulls that power away from those that abuse it.

Just watch any of the "reality" cop shows on TV...many are frustrated Special Forces or Navy SEAL wannabes. I can hear them now on old Cobbs's farm, as they carry two pot plants from his property: "It's a good job by the guys today. It doesn't seem like much, but if we can even get two pieces of this gateway drug off the mean streets of Albemarle, we might've saved a couple of kids from future heroin addiction."

R.I.P.: Robert Urich

@ c rose

"Think about it before passing judgement."

I've thought about it for years. Cops are more dangerous than weed growers.

@ Gasbag
You had better believe they're not finished with Mr. Cobb. The next outrage is for them to seize his farm under the civil forfeiture laws. They don't need a criminal conviction to do that. BTW I don't believe that Mr. Cobb planted two scraggly ditchweed plants in full view of the helicopters. That had to be a setup.

@Uncle Albert's Nephew - or it could have been one of his sons who wasn't using his brain. Not only that but seeds can travel, via animals or birds.

The Scottsville/N. Garden area has often been targeted because there have been significant "busts" there (years ago) for pot growers.

The relative I have that worked at ACRJ and is still in corrections will tell you that they rather deal with someone high on pot being incarcerated than a drunk. Drunks are combative, messy, loud and rude. Someone high on pot, "give them a bag of Cheetos and a mattress and you don't hear from them for the rest of the night."

Yet alcohol is legal to possess and consume if of age.

Meanwhile, we have unsolved murders and people who drive on our road ways like idiots who are causing accidents? Appears to me some of our local law enforcement has their priorities skewed.

This is the drugs- security- state- law -enforcement and prosecutorial industry; all mutually supporting, all mutually justifying and committed to self perpetuation, common sense be damned..and yes, i do realize the real need for some of this. yet...( In my other non- va home the police dept just spent $200K on a sonic crowd disperser unit..what do you think the likely hood of that ever being used or working? A Nice new toy for the boys to play with ...)

It might have been James C. Justice looking over his 4,500 acres near by.