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DRUG HOUSE GETS NEW LIFE AS RETREAT FOR EX-ADDICTS

Things sure have changed at 3839 Mount Pleasant Road in the Town of Sherman.

The peaceful 23-acre site -- complete with a pond and its own trails through the woods -- once flourished as an interstate distribution center for a large marijuana trade into nearby Pennsylvania.

Now, this property, about eight miles from Chautauqua Lake in rolling Chautauqua County farmland, is being reborn. It is now a retreat for recovering drug addicts.

After almost two years, this lush property seized by the federal government has been deeded to the Kids Escaping Drugs campaign.

It will be used as a retreat for recovering youths from throughout Western New York, as an anti-drug education center and for parent-child workshops for Chautauqua County families.

A house once used to help feed drug habits now will help teen-agers kick those same habits.

"To see this as a distribution center for marijuana and then to turn it around and use it to assist kids in their recovery process from drugs is a nice turn of events," said Richard J. Gallagher, executive director of Alcohol and Drug Dependency Services.

"I don't know if there is a better law enforcement tool around than taking a drug trafficker's property and giving it to an organization helping the people he was poisoning," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard D. Kaufman, who heads that office's federal forfeiture program.

A visit to the secluded two-story home -- described by federal authorities as a residential hunting lodge -- shows why it could have been a perfect stash house for drugs. You can sit on the second-floor deck, overlooking a large pond, for an hour and see only one or two vehicles passing by on the nearby road.

Carmen Farbo, the former owner, sold 10 pounds of marijuana to an undercover Pennsylvania drug investigator in June 1994, according to federal court papers. He later told authorities that he was in the process of selling a 200-pound shipment of marijuana.

Marijuana shipments were being dropped off at the Sherman property, for transport to Farbo's business in Erie, Pa., he acknowledged. Investigators also found 10 pounds of marijuana that he had buried in the yard.

Farbo was convicted on felony drug charges, and in November 1995, U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin ordered the property forfeited to the federal government. Asset forfeiture is a 200-year-old practice, dating from the days of 18th-century pirate ships, that allows the government to seize property used for repeated, extensive drug use or dealing.

The Kids Escaping Drugs campaign previously had lobbied local federal officials for some funds or property seized by the government. Specifically, they asked for property located in the country that could be used as a retreat.

So Gallagher and JoAnne Hudecki, Kids Escaping Drugs campaign director, worked with U.S. Attorney Patrick H. NeMoyer and U.S. Marshal John P. McCaffrey. Also involved in the negotiations were the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Department and the Pennsylvania attorney general's office.

The deal hit one snag. Some Chautauqua County elected officials balked at the property being taken off the tax rolls, but the Kids Escaping Drugs campaign later wrote a $2,000 check in lieu of taxes.

The deed was transferred last spring. A ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held at 11 a.m. Friday.

Gallagher, a fierce advocate for adolescent drug abusers, has done his wrestling over the years with government officials, especially over funding.

"We often complain about government, but this is one time the government has done something really exceptional," Gallagher said. "It's a tremendous level of satisfaction to know the system can work."

The Sherman property will not become a permanent residence, like the Kids Escaping Drugs campaign's two facilities in West Seneca -- Renaissance House, a 30-bed treatment home for youths, and Stepping Stones, the adjacent after-care home.

Instead, it will be used as a short-term retreat, where young people will hike, fish, study wildlife and engage in supervised trust-building and other activities.

And their presence at a former drug house will teach them another lesson: That opportunistic drug dealers, who can destroy individuals and their families, can lose, too.

In a sense, the 23-acre site has been the scene of a little morality play. "It's a tremendous positive message for the kids of today that government took a stand, put the people in jail, took their property from them and gave it to the Kids Escaping Drugs campaign to help kids," Gallagher said.

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