The making of 'Kid Cannabis'

Story of local drug smuggling operation being made into movie

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Jonathan Daniel Brown, right, plays Nate Norman in the upcoming film "Kid Cannabis." A Hayden native, Norman went from being a Pizza Hut delivery boy to operating a multi-million dollar drug organization focused on the import of marijuana from Canada into North Idaho.

COEUR d'ALENE - When the corpse of a young Hayden Lake man was discovered in the woods near Mokins Bay in 2002, Kootenai County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Brad Maskell said he initially thought he would be investigating a dumped body.

But the investigation into the death of 20-year-old Brendan Butler, the adopted son of a wealthy Hayden Lake family, uncovered more than a murder. It revealed that before his death, Butler was the head of a drug smuggling operation that was importing "BC Bud," a potent strain of Canadian-grown marijuana, into North Idaho.

"It grew into a very large investigation with tentacles out into a lot of different areas," Maskell said.

"That murder investigation took us through the drug world that existed here in Coeur d'Alene at the time," Maskell added.

At the center of that world were Butler and a rival drug smuggler, Nate Norman of Coeur d'Alene, a 19-year-old high school dropout who, in the span of a year, went from delivering pizzas to running a multi-million dollar drug trafficking operation.

"It was pretty shocking to see that many very, very young people involved in such high-level drug marketing and also involved in conspiracies to commit murder," Maskell said. "They were young people; some of the people that we dealt with in that case were still high school age to late teens and very early twenties."

The "tentacles" of the Butler murder case eventually led to a joint investigation conducted by the Idaho State Police and FBI, the results of which spawned national media attention and now a film entitled "Kid Cannabis."

Butler had hired Giovanni Mendiola, the man eventually charged with his own murder, to kill Norman.

From headlines to the silver screen

John Stockwell read a Rolling Stone piece by Mark Binelli as well as a series of articles in the Inlander written by Kevin Taylor. The director said he loved the story and then took it to HBO Films.

"I just love the idea that he (Norman) was an average, average guy," Stockwell said. "If anything what he loved about it wasn't as much the money as it was the popularity that came with it. He really liked taking care of his friends and seeing them making money."

The studio optioned the story, and Stockwell then traveled to North Idaho to begin doing research for the film. While in Coeur d'Alene, he met Terry Morgan, the FBI agent who investigated Norman's drug organization. The men went to visit Norman in federal prison.

Morgan first took Stockwell to Burger King, where the two picked up food to bring to Norman.

"He (Norman) came out and saw the burger and fries and sat with us for two or three hours," Stockwell said.

Norman, who Stockwell said has shed his weight and now looks "prison ripped," was open and forthcoming with the director.

"I expected one of two things, either a paunchier, goofier, sort of nerdy guy and/or a more thuggish and hardened guy," Stockwell said of the meeting. "But he was right in the middle."

After the meeting with Norman, Stockwell made contact with several other North Idaho teens who were involved in the marijuana trafficking operation. Some didn't want to talk to him, and others wanted their names changed.

"But even after all that transpired, they were all really just average, kind of blue-collar, working class kids," Stockwell said. "I mean they regretted it in a certain sense, they certainly regretted getting caught, but it was one of the wildest parts of their lives."

Stockwell has not had any interaction with Norman since their jailhouse interview, but he did recall one concern the former drug kingpin had about the film.

"I remember he was concerned with who was going to play him. He may think now that he should have been played by Ryan Gosling or Channing Tatum," Stockwell said.

Ultimately Jonathan Daniel Brown was chosen for the role and Stockwell said he was a "perfect" choice.

"But nobody is that self-aware to think that (Brown would be perfect to play them)," Stockwell said. "They all think they're Channing Tatum."

Becoming Nate

When Brown first read the script for "Kid Cannabis," he said he was drawn to the story and prepared for the role by reading as much as he could about the case. He described Norman as someone "from the wrong side of the tracks" who, while not "conventionally intelligent" found a way to exploit a thriving black market.

"There is literally nothing he could have done in the conventional business world that would have taken him out of his situation," Brown said. "He had no chance, so he found a chance and seized on it and went all the way."

Going all the way caused Norman to make what Brown called the "quintessential true crime mistake."

"You let your ego inflate and you just start opening your mouth," Brown said. "That's what he did, he got too much into this goofy, chubby, Scarface persona."

Although the actor was born and raised in Los Angeles, Brown said he was able to identify with Norman.

"I just looked at him as sort of an outsider who was desperate to make people happy," Brown said. "He really just wanted to make his life better by giving people what they wanted. And that was pot."

Brown added that he thought Norman didn't know his attempt to provide people with what they wanted would place him in the center of a federal investigation.

"I don't think he had the foresight to know that, so I had to turn off that side of my brain and just sort of live in the moment," Brown said. "Because that's definitely what he did. He sort of took every day as it went and wasn't someone who looked at the long-term consequences."

The consequences

For his role as the head of the drug trafficking ring, Norman was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Edward Lodge to serve 12 years in prison.

Seven of Norman's cohorts were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 24 to 26 months for their roles in the operation.

Giovanni Mendiola was incarcerated for eight years in a plea agreement deal. Mendiola, originally from Lake Forest Calif., pleaded guilty to second degree murder in the death of Butler.

Maskell said he isn't shocked that a movie was made about the Norman case. He plans to see the film when it is released April 18.

"I don't know if they're going to make him (Norman) like a folk hero or what," Maskell said. "It doesn't surprise me because there's a lot to it and I suppose it would appeal to a lot of different kind of folks."

The film "Kid Cannabis" chronicles the true story of a group of North Idaho natives who, when they were in their late teens and early 20s, smuggled marijuana from Canada into the Coeur d'Alene area.

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