It was a crime story that all but wrote itself. In 2010, police investigating an outdoor marijuana operation in British Columbia’s southern Interior uncovered more than just pot plants. As the officers worked to dismantle the grow op, bears sauntered out of the woods, first six, then another four, and by final count as many as two dozen. When police searched the nearby house of an eccentric recluse, they found a “frantic” Vietnamese pot-bellied pig and a “laid back” raccoon.
Bears, bud and a B.C. backcountry hippie were too much for headline writers to resist. Within hours of the police suggesting that marijuana growers were using bears to guard their crops, the news spread around the world. “Don’t Smokey near this bear,” declared the New York Post, while video of a Russian news anchor trying to tell the story of the pot bears through tears of laughter was an online hit.
Last month the case against Allen Piche, 67, the owner of the grow op who admitted he regularly fed the bears dog food, finally came to a close. And if the details of that initial raid seemed odd, revelations about the bungled police investigation and Piche’s own strange relationship with the bears surely cement it as one of B.C.’s most bizarre drug cases in recent memory.
The case against Piche immediately ran into trouble. Days after police raided his property, thieves broke into the Grand Forks RCMP detachment where some of the 1,100 seized marijuana plants were being stored and made off with part of the stash, along with explosives that were also being kept there. The haul was recovered later and charges were laid against a 35-year-old man from nearby Greenwood with no connection to the original case. But evidence that has been tampered with is rarely admissible in court, posing a potential problem for police. By then though, the narrative that Piche was feeding the bears to scare off intruders was also starting to unravel.
For one thing, neighbours recall Piche’s wife feeding the bears for decades. Piche and his wife, Kate, had fled Ontario in the ’70s to live off the land in remote bush overlooking Christina Lake. Though they divorced, she lived nearby and was soon feeding a fawn she named Taweyela, then an elk, racoons, wild turkeys and eventually the bears. When conservation officers warned her to stop in the 1990s, she left and the bears wandered toward Piche’s cabin instead. “I figure I’ve been feeding for 12 years, but at first it was just Cutey Pie,” he says, referring to one of the bears by name. “Then Trixie came with two cubs and before I knew it I was feeding more.”
Piche has never denied growing marijuana, but says he did so partly to raise money for his ursine feedings. Investigators later concluded Piche spent $10,000 on the animals from August to October of 2010, serving them seven 16-kg bags of dog food every day. “When I was laying in that jail I was thinking, ‘How am I going to feed these bears now?’ ” he says.
That question also nagged wildlife officials after the raid. “Bears that rely on human food are conditioned to want that and they act different than if they are in the wild,” says Aaron Canuel, an B.C. conservation officer. “It’s a major safety concern.” As Piche’s case churned through the courts, conservation officers claimed they were having to kill more bears than normal around the area, and thought some were likely Piche’s.
Piche disputes this claim and took photos of what he said were the two dozen bears he’d been feeding. Regardless, in May 2012 he pleaded guilty to two counts of feeding dangerous wildlife. Calling Piche’s actions “foolish,” B.C. provincial court Judge Ronald Fabbro fined him $6,000.
The Crown sought jail time for the drug charges. Worse still for Piche, the file was turned over to B.C.’s Civil Forfeiture Office, which applied to confiscate his 35 hectares of land as an “instrument of unlawful activity.” His life took another turn last August when a fire burned down his house, and though police initially said they suspected arson, they later said the fire was accidental.
While Piche was now homeless and facing jail time, the case against him quickly began to fall apart. In the RCMP sworn affidavit, given after police flew over his land, police claimed to have seen marijuana plants in greenhouses. This became a problem for the Crown when Piche’s defence lawyer explained that the buildings were topped by black tarps. “If you look at the photographs you see nothing,” says Piche’s lawyer, Jesse Gelber. Citing inconsistencies between the RCMP testimony and affidavits, B.C. provincial court Judge Donald Sperry found Piche not guilty in December.
With no criminal conviction, the Civil Forfeiture Office offered Piche a deal: stop feeding bears and growing weed and you can keep the land. Piche accepted, and says his bears have returned to the wild. With no tags on the bears, conservation officers say they have no way to know for sure. As for Piche himself, he’s back in Ontario but plans to return to Christina Lake this summer to rebuild his cabin and finish a book he’s writing about the strange ordeal.