Yellowed plastic holds stubbornly to the skeletal frame of a greenhouse as Mitchell Kelley looks at the decrepit shell and shakes his head. “There have been a lot of dirty scams in farming, but this is the damnedest one I’ve ever heard of. You want to meet the devil? Go find Jamie Lawhorne; he’s got everything but the horns.”
Agriculture’s most outrageous crime story spans multiple states, a mother lode of high jinks, bounty hunters and enough greenbacks to choke a dozen mules. Hundreds of small farmers were hustled by a con artist selling a pyramid of lies.
Jamie Lawhorne lit the fuse on a bizarre swindle and then went on the lam, stumbling from one misadventure to the next, leaving behind a telltale trail of tomatoes, worms, pickles, shattered growers and financial ruin. Wearing overlapping shades of Walter White, P.T. Barnum and Elmer Gantry, Lawhorne created a grow-for-the-green swindle.
Lemmings Off a Cliff
In early 2013, Lawhorne launched Cypress Creek Organic Farms in Hampton Cove, Ala., southeast of Huntsville. The pitch to prospective producers was fancy, but relatively simple: $25,000 to $40,000 of income per year growing organic tomatoes. For a one-time fee of $9,950, “affiliates” were promised a greenhouse, seedlings, training, buyback of all tomatoes and guaranteed USDA organic certification.
In six months, the spiel attracted more than 250 Alabama and Tennessee growers and $2.2 million.
In March 2013, Kelley clicked a Cypress Creek advertisement on Facebook, dialed the phone number, and listened as Lawhorne tickled his ear with a tomato pipe dream: Grow’em, pick’em, put’em in a box and a truck collects ’em; it’s a surefire $25,000-plus.
“I went to meet Lawhorne shortly after and there were no alarm bells. Seemed like a harmless guy starting a business,” Kelley says.
At 50, Lawhorne blended into crowds with a nondescript figure: medium height, slight build, moustachioed, balding gray hair. He used those traits to his advantage.
Take the Money and Run
The buyback promises collapsed and a baying local media descended with mounting questions. Lawhorne skipped town and surfaced several months later barking a new deal and sporting an alias — Jim Gilley — 450 miles away in Concord, N.C.
Gone were tunnel tomatoes, replaced by red worms. “Affiliates” became “associates,” and in 2014, Cypress Creek was replaced by WormzOrganic. Otherwise, it was the same: For $4,950, an associate signed a 10-year contract guaranteeing buyback of worm castings and red wigglers at market prices.
A few months and more than 100 outraged associates later, the worm pyramid toppled. Lawhorne fled Concord, but was pinched eight days later for a DUI in South Carolina. He was then transported to Alabama to face charges.
On Oct. 31, 2014, Lawhorne was indicted on 24 counts of illegal activity related to the tomato caper. He posted bail and was released with a state monitoring bracelet strapped to his ankle.
“He appeared to be a low-flight risk,” recalls Bill Honea, #1 Bail Bonds in Huntsville, Ala. Honea, a 27-year veteran bondsman in the Southeast, and associate of Dog the Bounty Hunter, took a long look at Lawhorne. “He came off as knowledgeable, but as a guy who would rather do wrong than right.”
Less than a month after posting bond, Lawhorne cut off his monitoring device and boarded a bus for parts unknown. Just two and a half months after the indictment, Lawhorne would again be on the run and ready to set up shop as a cucumber con man.
In St. Mary, Fla., Lawhorne (using the name Jamie James) had launched Pockles Pickles. After a buy-in investment just under $5,000, growers would receive seed, fertilizer, containers and more, along with a 10-year contract and an attractive $30,000 per year profit possibility.
Honea’s team swooped in on Feb. 22, 2015, catching Lawhorne unaware in a motel hallway. Lawhorne was back on the highway to Alabama to face the long arm of the law.
“He never quit talking during the 12-hour ride,” Honea recalls. “He recounted check scams, prison time in Leavenworth and more. I’ve had a long career chasing thousands of criminals, but I’ll never forget Lawhorne.”
On July 22, 2015, Lawhorne was sentenced to 15 years. Yet due to overcrowded prisons, Alabama set free a large number of white collar criminals — Lawhorne included. He walked in 2018 and is out on probation.
In Alabama, Jamie Lawhorne sets up Cypress Creek Organic Farms. The phony contract organic tomato enterprise drains $2 million from area farmers.
In North Carolina, Lawhorne launches WormzOrganic. He recruits 100 contract growers of red wiggler worms for $5,000 a pop on the promise of easy money.
Lawhorne is indicted on 24 counts of illegal activity from Cypress Creek. He posts bail and is released with a state monitoring ankle bracelet. A month later, he cuts off the device and leaves town.
In Florida, Lawhorne launches Pockles Pickles, a company offering $5,000 contracts for organic cucumber production. He’s arrested by a bounty hunter.
Lawhorne is sentenced to 15 years in prison but is later released in 2018.
Read more about Jamie Lawhorne’s bizarre chain of ag crimes at AgWeb.com/Lawhorne