Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Johnny Boone, Kentucky outlaw of ‘Cornbread Mafia’ marijuana syndicate, dead at 80

A photo of Johnny Boone
Jim Higdon
A photo of Johnny Boone.

Central Kentucky native Johnny Boone evaded a federal manhunt for eight years, following his 20-year sentence for leading what federal prosecutors called the largest domestic marijuana syndicate in American history.

Johnny Boone, the marijuana outlaw from central Kentucky who evaded a federal manhunt for eight years, died Friday night at the age of 80.

Known as the “Godfather of Grass,” Boone was a leader of what was dubbed the “Cornbread Mafia,” which federal prosecutors in 1989 called “the largest domestic marijuana-producing organization in the history of the United States.''

In a Facebook post, fellow Cornbread Mafia leader Joe Keith Bickett wrote that Boone passed away Friday night.

"He was a great friend to many of us," Bickett wrote. "Always willing to help his friends and neighbors. Prayers and thoughts for all the Boone family. He will be greatly missed.

John Robert Boone and his close-knit associates grew large amounts of marijuana out of Marion, Nelson and Washington counties in the 1970s and 1980s. The syndicate eventually expanded its illegal trafficking operation to 10 states through the Midwest, until federal agencies arrested and charged dozens of them in 1987.

Boone was among those arrested and was eventually sentenced to 20 years on drug charges, though prosecutors were hamstrung by the fact that none of the more than 100 people arrested cooperated with authorities in exchange for lesser sentences.

Following his release, Boone’s outlaw folk legend grew in 2008 when state police and the DEA raided his Springfield farm and found 2,400 marijuana plants. Boone fled to escape arrest and remained a fugitive for the next eight years, as a “third strike” for a federal drug conviction could have led to a life sentence.

Boone was finally discovered and arrested in Montreal in late 2016. He pleaded guilty to one charge and was sentenced to 57 months the following year. He received an early release from prison in 2020 after an outbreak of COVID-19 at his federal prison in Ohio.

Federal authorities’ difficulty in finding Boone while he was on the lam was attributed to the same reasons they couldn’t get defendants to flip in the 1980s: the “code of silence” surrounding the Cornbread Mafia and the goodwill they had earned in the community.

Former U.S. Marshal Rick McCubbin told The Courier Journal in 2017 they ran into a wall of silence when attempting to find Boone in his old haunts, as he had taken care of his community and they repaid him with loyalty.

“They were very honest,” McCubbin said. “They said they wouldn’t tell where he was even if they knew.”

At a 2017 fundraiser for Boone’s legal expenses, the newspaper found one woman wearing a t-shirt with “omerta to the bone” on the back, along with a skeleton behind bars giving the middle finger. Omerta is Italian for “code of silence” and is tattooed on Boone’s back.

Author James Higdon, whose 2012 book “The Cornbread Mafia” featured interviews with Boone, told Louisville Public Media in 2016 shortly after his capture that Boone was “a Robin Hood type figure” back in his hometown of Marion County.

“He's a legend where he's from, and the U.S. Marshals found this out when they went to go find him for being a fugitive… nobody in Marion and Washington County wanted to point a finger at Johnny Boone,” Higdon said. “He has a lot of respect in his community for being a responsible member of his community who gives back to a lot of people, who helps out a lot of people.”

After learning of his death, Higdon said he was an American original.

"One of the most naturally intelligent people I have ever known," he said.

Boone was first convicted on a federal marijuana charge in 1982, then arrested in Minnesota along with associates growing marijuana there in an October 1987 raid. Boone led the operations at the Minnesota farm, where law enforcement seized 47 tons of marijuana.

According to Higdon’s book, Boone was chased from the farm by three police cars until he was caught. Officers found a loaded rifle, handgun and thousands of rounds of ammo in his truck, but Boone fired no shots at the officers.

By the end of 1987, the DEA had raided marijuana farms in nine more states connected to the Cornbread Mafia syndicate, seizing 182 tons of marijuana (worth $350 million at the time) and arresting more than 80 — most from Marion County.

The syndicate was heavily armed and set up elaborate defenses to guard its crops — allegedly including boobytraps, bears and lions — with federal prosecutors calling them a “paramilitary force.”

Just before he was sentenced to 20 years on his 1988 drug conviction, Boone told the court he and his associates were not violent criminals, just people trying to make a living.

“With the poverty at home, marijuana is sometimes one of the things that puts bread on the table… We were working with our hands on earth God gave us,” Boone said. “We’re not criminals, we’re not. We’re not the kind of people who go out and harm people.”

When Boone fled in 2008 to avoid arrest and began his eight years in hiding, former Deputy U.S. Marshal Rich Knighten said the law enforcement pursuit was “like trying to catch a ghost."

Locals cheered on Boone as he defied federal law enforcement and became an outlaw folk hero — he was even featured on a TV episode of America’s Most Wanted — with many buying T-shirts reading “Run Johnny, Run.”

An Associated Press story from 2010, when Boone was still on the lam, featured locals in Marion County testifying to his generosity and hoping he avoided being caught and sentenced to prison for the rest of his life.

"He was just a good ol' country boy, a farmer," said Joe Pendleton. "He's not robbing banks or nothing."

"That's all he's ever done, raising pot," said longtime friend Larry Hawkins. "He never hurt nobody."

After his early release from prison in 2020, Boone joined Joe Keith Bickett and Jimmy Bickett — two of the Cornbread Mafia founders who were also sentenced to 20 years — in endorsing a hemp CBD company called Bickett & Boone. The company is run by a Bickett family member and grows low-THC cannabis on their family farm in Raywick.

Growing and using marijuana for recreational purposes is still illegal in Kentucky — and roughly half of states — though the state legalized medical marijuana in 2023. The strictly regulated program is set to officially launch in January 2025 for patients to legally obtain medical cannabis, with licensed growers expected to start planting seeds later this year.

President Joe Biden announced in April his administration is seeking to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule III drug, which would bring decreased criminal penalties and more opportunity for medical research. Marijiuana has been a Schedule I drug since 1970, along with such drugs as heroin, ecstasy and LSD.

At what was dubbed a “Cornbread Mafia reunion” on April 20, 2023, in Lebanon, Ky. — with Boone in attendance — Joe Keith Bickett told a local newspaper the large local turnout was “a tribute to the guys who spent a lot of time in prison for something legal today. What we did back then, people are making money doing it today. It has come full circle.”

Fellow Cornbread Mafia co-founder Bobby Joe Shewmaker, who served a 27-year sentence, noted that growing pot was just a misdemeanor when they started in the 1960s.

“The crowd here shows society has changed, but they are about 35 years behind us in their thinking,” Shewmaker said. “The feds and the state made it a felony, but we had already dug a hole too deep to get out. We don’t think we did anything wrong.”

Updated: this story has been updated to include a new photo.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Joe is the enterprise statehouse reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email Joe at