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To Stop a Heist

Inside the $3 million plot to kidnap a Humboldt County pot grower

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ILLUSTRATION BY DAVE ORCHARD
  • Illustration by Dave Orchard

The story begins with a strip club bouncer and an Iraq War veteran meeting in Polekatz, a sprawling 18,000-square-foot bar about 15 miles outside of Chicago with all nude, full-contact lap dances, poor Yelp reviews and a shady reputation. It ended 2,200 miles west, with an FBI agent chasing down the two men and one other, and arresting them before they could allegedly kidnap, torture and rob a Humboldt County marijuana grower of $3 million.

The story is cut from a Hollywood script, with characters straight from central casting. But it is also very real, drawing light to rumors long murmured yet never confirmed of multi-national crime organizations operating in Humboldt County and pulling in seven-figure profits while cultivating and trafficking on a massive scale.

According to an affidavit in support of an arrest warrant that was apparently penned just a couple of hours before the three men arrived at the McKinleyville airport to reportedly carry out a multi-million-dollar heist, it all started with an informant's phone call March 20. The informant — referred to throughout the document as Confidential Human Source, or CHS — told FBI agents that a Bulgarian national named Emanoel Borisov had approached him about committing a robbery.

Mug shot of Paul Brooks, one of the three men accused in the heist plot. - SUBMITTED
  • Submitted
  • Mug shot of Paul Brooks, one of the three men accused in the heist plot.

Borisov, 28, hulking and covered in tattoos, told the informant he'd learned of the imminent arrival of approximately $2.3 million in cash to a Humboldt County home belonging to another Bulgarian, who cultivated and trafficked large quantities of cannabis. The guy — to whom he later referred as "Ivan" — also had at least $400,000 in cash in his home, Borisov said, making the total haul for the robbery at least $2.7 million, according to the affidavit.

The plan, as Borisov allegedly laid it out to the informant, was to snatch Ivan at the gate to his property and kidnap him, holding him until he gave up the location of the millions in cash. If needed, Borisov said he would "do the hard part," according to the affidavit.

There were to be two other players in the robbery, as well. The affidavit states that Borisov told the informant he was also recruiting his friend Paul Brooks, a 34-year-old Marine and Iraq War veteran, whom Borisov had met while Brooks worked security at Polekatz, to be backup. Another man —Evgeni Kopankov, a U.S. citizen of Bulgarian descent — had identified the target and would provide guns and masks. Borisov allegedly told the informant that he was needed to help get all that cash back to Illinois after the successful heist.

Mug shot of Emanoel Borisov, one of the three men accused in the heist plot. - SUBMITTED
  • Submitted
  • Mug shot of Emanoel Borisov, one of the three men accused in the heist plot.

"The plan is we're gonna probably snatch the guy outside his house, probably at the gate," Borisov said, according to a transcript of a recorded conversation with the informant contained in a court filing.

"By himself?" the informant asked.

"We're gonna wait until he comes up to the gate in his car or something," Borisov replied. "We're gonna take the guy with us. We'll keep him for a day or two ... until he tells us where the money is at."

When agents received this information, it seems to have immediately been taken seriously, in part, because the bureau was familiar with Kopankov.

Back on Dec. 19, the Humboldt County Drug Task Force was contacted by an "out of state law enforcement agency" that notified it that "possible illegal items" would be coming into the county on a private jet that afternoon, according to an affidavit in support of a search warrant obtained by the Journal. The document filed in Humboldt County Superior Court doesn't identify the agency but notes it was investigating a drug trafficking organization that included people of Bulgarian descent. The FBI affidavit, meanwhile, notes that both the bureau and the Drug Enforcement Administration participated in the case.

Mug shot of Evgeni Kopankov, one of the three men accused in the heist plot. - SUBMITTED
  • Submitted
  • Mug shot of Evgeni Kopankov, one of the three men accused in the heist plot.

At about 3:15 p.m. that day, agents watched from afar as three men — including Edgar Garcia, who had allegedly chartered the plane — exited the jet and loaded numerous large suitcases into a pair of waiting cars, a silver Nissan Titan and a black Jeep SUV. Police stopped the vehicles less than a mile away, as they turned into the Holiday Inn Express. A narcotic sniffing dog named Reese signaled he smelled drugs in both cars, which were subsequently searched. Inside, officers reported finding eight suitcases carrying a combined $2 million in cash. During the search, Kopankov came out of his hotel room and was linked to the vehicles, according to the affidavit, which notes his cell phone was later found inside one of them.

About a week after he first notified the FBI of the heist plot, the informant met with both Borisov and Brooks on March 28, recording the conversation. According to the affidavit, Borisov relayed the story of the $2 million seized in McKinleyville a few months earlier, saying it had been Garcia's money. Further, Borisov relayed that Kopankov had told him that Garcia and "Ivan" were in the midst of an ongoing dispute over a property sale the year before, and Kopankov said he'd started spreading rumors that "Mexicans" were plotting to go after Ivan because of it.

"Kopankov hoped that the rumors about 'the Mexicans' would make Ivan incorrectly assume that 'the Mexicans' had robbed him," the affidavit states, adding that Kopankov hoped the story would give him, Brooks and Borisov a layer of cover for the robbery they were plotting.

Then on March 30 and April 1, the informant recorded a series of follow-up conversations about the heist. At one point, one of the conversations allegedly turned to guns and Borisov assured the informant that Kopankov would provide them in California.

"You're not gonna go empty handed, you know?" the informant asked according to the transcript.

"Oh, no. Fuck no," Brooks replied.

"Of course not," Borisov added.

"I'm not doing that," Brooks allegedly said. "Fuck no. ... You're out of your fucking mind. I'm crazy, dude, but ..."

In another conversation, the informant expressed some concern about the plan.

"You kidnap the guy, before the gate, OK, he's gonna say the money is (inside)," the informant says. "What if in the house is five more people with guns? What you gonna do then?"

"That's why we're thinking of you guys coming," Borisov allegedly said.

"But then you need to walk up and kill everybody?" the informant asked.

"Then we do what we gotta do," Borisov allegedly said.

During one of the meetings on March 30 or April 1, Borisov allegedly told the informant and Brooks that Kopankov had decided Ivan's property was too well guarded for the kidnapping to work, and pivoted the plans toward robbing someone named "Sergey," who Kopankov believed was holding $3 million.

The plan was in place: Kopankov would drive out to Humboldt County; Borisov and Brooks would fly, purchasing one-way tickets; the three would meet at the airport in McKinleyville, where Kopankov would show up with masks and guns; the three would travel to Sergey's property and camp nearby until the opportunity arose to kidnap Sergey and "hurt him" until he disclosed the location of the hidden cash. Borisov allegedly told the informant he then planned to double back and rob Ivan afterward.

After the meeting on the first, the informant went with Borisov and Brooks to Walmart in Northlake, Illinois, where they bought boots, pants and backpacks. The same day, the informant purchased one-way airline tickets to Humboldt County for Borisov and Brooks, departing April 3. They were scheduled to arrive on the 5:30 p.m. flight from San Francisco.

In a roundabout way, the FBI affidavit makes mention of a massive cannabis bust on Nov. 27 on Wilder Ridge Road in which the Humboldt County Drug Task Force reported destroying more than 10,000 pounds of processed marijuana, prompting Lt. Mike Fridley to say it was the "most bud I have ever seen in one place." The affidavit states that Borisov was talking to the informant and Brooks about other potential robberies when he mentions robbing Ivan's partners "Vlado" and "Gala," who Borisov said have $5 million to $6 million hidden in a home in Illinois. The affidavit, penned by Special Agent Richard Smith, states he believes Borisov was referring to Vladamir Pavlov and Galina Nedialkova, who own V&I Construction with Ivan Illiev. Smith further states that he believes Illiev was the initial robbery target.

"I am familiar with V&I because, on Nov. 27, 2018, I assisted in a seizure of over 10,000 pounds of processed marijuana on a property owned by V&I," Smith wrote.

A picture of a marijuana bud pile from the Nov. 27 bust at a property in Southern Humboldt that may be connected to the failed plan to allegedly kidnap, rob and torture a Humboldt County grower. - SUBMITTED
  • Submitted
  • A picture of a marijuana bud pile from the Nov. 27 bust at a property in Southern Humboldt that may be connected to the failed plan to allegedly kidnap, rob and torture a Humboldt County grower.

According to a Humboldt County Superior Court search warrant, the bust took place on an 18-acre property located on Wilder Ridge Road in Southern Humboldt and came after Bureau of Land Management Special Agent Matt Knudson spotted a large greenhouse on the property during a flyover and later learned it wasn't in the county permitting process. While conducting surveillance on the property, officers spotted a vehicle registered to Illiev coming and going from the property, and a water tender registered to an Illinois address servicing the property.

Additionally, after serving warrants, officers reported finding 30 workers on site, most using passports from Eastern European nations as ID.

But the property isn't owned by V&I Construction — at least not anymore. According to county records, Illiev had been the registered owner until June of 2016, when he sold it to Gueorgui Mollov for $250,000. Zillow estimates the property's value to be closer to $450,000. Paperwork filed with the California Secretary of State's Office by V&I Construction, meanwhile, lists its headquarters at a location just down the road. and near another property busted Nov. 27 that also has ties to Illiev.

Regardless of exactly how the properties do or don't tie together, it's clear that come April 3, the FBI is taking this heist plot very seriously. The bureau is notified — it's unclear whether by TSA or an agent on the ground at the airport — when Borisov and Brooks arrive in San Francisco. One of the last lines in Smith's affidavit notes that the suspects are there and their plane "is expected to depart at 4:10 p.m. for their final destination, ACV in McKinleyville."

According to court records, agents conducted a traffic stop just off U.S. Highway 101 shortly before 5:30 p.m. and took Kopankov into custody. At just about the same time, Terrie Cengia was arriving at the airport with her 2-year-old grandchild. They were picking up a friend flying in from San Francisco but as they approached the airport, they noticed a dark colored SUV and three Humboldt County Sheriff's Office patrol cars.

"There were two cops there and they told us to get back," Cengia recalls.

Local attorney Allison Jackson, meanwhile, was on the plane, returning from oral arguments before the court of appeals in San Francisco. Two other passengers told the Journal that two large men had been acting oddly, seemed intoxicated and kept getting up to use the bathroom, but Jackson says she was reading and hadn't noticed.

She says after the plane landed, she got up, walked down to the tarmac, grabbed her carry-on bag from the luggage rack and turned to walk inside when she saw a group stopped at the metal turnstiles, with Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal in street clothes — jeans and a backpack — halting the crowd. Behind him, Jackson says she could see six or eight deputies and some officers in plain clothes handcuffing two men before leading them out the door.

When it was all over, Jackson says she walked by Honsal.

"I went, 'Hey, Billy, where the hell was the big guy sitting on the plane?' And he said, 'Next to me,'" Jackson recalls with a laugh.

Honsal declined to comment on whether he was on the plane as a part of the investigation or just happened to be traveling, saying he can't speak publicly about the FBI's case. Generally, though, he said his department is well aware of an organized crime element operating within Humboldt County's illicit cannabis industry.

Since their arrests, Kopankov, Borisov and Brooks have all pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit robbery affecting interstate commerce and conspiracy to commit kidnapping. If convicted, they face a maximum of life in prison.

The federal government has already been dealt a blow in the court case. A federal judge, citing that neither has a criminal record, ruled over the federal government's objections that Kopankov and Borisov should be allowed to post $200,000 bail and await trial from their homes, subject to curfews and electronic monitoring.

Both men had been released from federal custody and Brooks' detention hearing was taking place as the Journal went to press with this issue.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Neal Hong had argued that releasing the men would put the public at risk, noting that the FBI carefully planned to arrest Borisov and Kopankov while still inside the airport and before they could arm themselves. Further, Hong argued, releasing them would put the FBI's informant at risk.

"The defendants plotted to abduct and rob an individual that is involved in marijuana trafficking," Hong wrote to the court. "Robbing a marijuana trafficker of millions of dollars is fraught with danger ... Borisov and Brooks insisted on being armed, and Borisov was willing to 'do what we gotta do' when faced with the possibility of encountering five armed men. Given the facts that the defendants were willing and bold enough to abduct and rob some potentially dangerous individuals for personal gain, it stands to reason that it is very realistic that they would be willing to harm or intimidate the CHS, especially given the nature and weight of the evidence against them. A curfew and electronic monitoring will not alleviate this concern."

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