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."