In December, 1990, then-Sacramento Bee columnist Jim Trotter visited a hard scrabble farm off of Garden Highway near the Sacramento River levee. There was a sadness about the place. And there was a 20-year-old man named David Tat Chow trying to hold things together - and hold on to a tiny family farm.
Trotter's column on Chow's mother, Marsha Chow, and stepfather, Richard Johnson, illuminated an aggressive bid by federal prosecutors to seize the farm over 20 small marijuana plants and what an expert witness described as "about two ounces of smokeable marijuana." By then, Marsha Chow and Johnson were in state prison, serving three-year felony sentences for marijuana cultivation.
Neighbors portrayed the couple as spiritual, reggae-loving, pot-smoking hippies who raised organic vegetables and volunteered for a local food bank. Prosecutors said they were drug dealers on probation for felony marijuana charges in Tehama County.
Trotter took up the cause of saving their modest 2 3/4-acre property from federal seizure.
"This (forfeiture) law has been used extensively in recent years to seize the boats, airplanes and estates of big time drug dealers," Trotter wrote. "But I don't think that is what we have here. If there is any drug wealth associated with this place, it isn't readily apparent."
With his parents in prison, David Tat Chow continued fighting to save the family farm. Eventually, years later, he wrote a $10,000 check to the U.S. Marshall's Service to settle the forfeiture case and keep the property.
But two decades later, he grieves dearly for his mother. She went to prison with breast cancer and died shortly after her release in 1993, he says. His stepfather, a decorated Vietnam War combat veteran, passed away in 2000.
There is, of course, a epilogue. It tells a story of a generational shift in social and legal attitudes for marijuana.
The tiny farm still isn't much of a sight these days. There are some splintering old decks and work houses, heaps of debris and organic crops of tomatoes and bell peppers. There are 22 varieties of fruit trees. And there is also a hydroponic grow room for marijuana.
David Tat Chow, now 40, is a medical marijuana advocate who legally cultivates for a half dozen patient users.
"I feel happy that the times have turned and the movement has gone further for the next generation," he says.
Yet he still wears a definite sadness.
"The time I lost with my mother is worth one hundred times more than the $10,000 I spent (to save the farm)," he says. "Time is irreplaceable."
Bryan Davies, operator of the Canna Care medical marijuana dispensary and a long-time family friend, says the raid and the parents' incarceration took a toll on the son.
"He has had a rough time," Davies says. "David needs to forgive those who did this."
Chow says he just wants the saga remembered.
"It's an amazing story," he says. "It should be heard. It seems to be forgotten."
A younger David Tat Chow relaxes with neighbor Tony Bush, his mother Marsha Chow and stepfather Richard Johnson after the couple's release from prison. Photo by Noel Neuburger.