Dirty socks. That's what worries Dave Takach at the moment. Samantha, his eight-year-old daughter, has been playing outside without shoes on, turning her white socks brown.
"Where's your shoes?" he asks.
"Ummm," she says, shrugging as she corkscrews her mouth. "I dunno. Inside."
"Go get your shoes on," Takach says, gently prodding her toward the house.
"OK," the girl answers. Then, with a sideward glance that is pure mischief, she peels back into the yard.
Takach snorts. "Man, my own kids don't even listen to me."
It's the kind of sweet exchange common to any beleaguered family man whose children spin in an orbit of their own. It is not the kind of exchange one might expect when Dad is a convicted dope dealer, taken down in one of the biggest pot busts in Cleveland history. What self-respecting playa can't get his daughter to put on her shoes?
"I'm not what the FBI says I am," Takach says. "I'm not saying I didn't do anything wrong, but man, I ain't no kingpin."
Last August, the feds nailed him and 15 others in a sting that netted more than 500 pounds of weed and $3.5 million in cash. The group engaged in its own brand of interstate commerce, smuggling pot from Texas to Ohio in semitrailers and distributing it throughout Cleveland.
Authorities fingered Takach, 45, as a major cog in the operation, painting him as a confidant of ringleader Clyde Baer. They taped numerous phone conversations of Baer and Takach discussing dope transactions, and the calls were among the FBI's first leads. Takach is "the way we got into Baer," confirms FBI Supervisory Special Agent Steve Vogt, who scoffs at Takach's claim that he was more user than dealer. "We don't go after potheads."
Earlier this month, a federal judge drilled Takach with a 51-month sentence after he pleaded guilty to drug and money-laundering charges.
Yet if the popular image of dealers brings to mind Glocks and gold chains, Takach looks more like what he is -- a plumber. He wears bib overalls, a red shirt, and work boots, his sandy blond hair pulled back in a long ponytail beneath a Harley-Davidson cap. Even at an Everest-like 6 feet 4, 280 pounds, he cuts a figure not of intimidation, but of a guy who gets the herb-induced munchies.
"It ain't a beer belly, it's a pot belly," he says, patting his gut. "But I quit smoking that stuff since all this happened."
Takach doesn't deny selling dope for Baer or that they're good friends. Nor does he want sympathy or argue that he should have avoided prison.
Instead, as casually as if he were explaining how to unclog a sink, Takach says he dealt for two reasons: He figured he could save a few bucks on his own 30-year pot habit while earning extra money for his family. He needs to clear about $2,000 a month to support them, and what he makes running Dave's Sewer & Drain-Cleaning out of his West Park home leaves little breathing room.
"I got five kids, three stepkids, five grandkids, a wife, an ex-wife, a dog, a cat, a goldfish." He shakes his head and laughs. "Man, you gotta sell dope to support all these people."
Such logic may disqualify him from Father of the Year consideration. But setting aside the tedious debate of whether pot is a cultural scourge, Takach believes he was trying to do right -- by his loved ones, if not the law.
Takach met Baer in the late 1980s, when both played pool in south side bar leagues. Baer, a beefy sort with the meat-and-potatoes face of a butcher, shared Takach's passion for motorcycles, classic rock, and weed. The two men became close, holding family barbecues, camping in Lodi, boating on Lake Erie.
Baer's generosity endeared him to Takach's brood. He'd show up at their house and buy the kids ice cream or hand them each a $5 bill. On special occasions, he might give $100 to the boys and $200 to the girls. He also did larger favors. When Takach fell on hard times and lost his house to creditors in the late '90s, Baer bought it at a sheriff's sale and sold it back to him at the bargain price of $72,000.
"Clyde's the greatest guy I've ever met in my life," Takach says. "I'd do anything for this guy short of murder."
While Baer's rap sheet includes nothing so violent, authorities were familiar with the North Royalton resident long before last year's bust. He racked up four drug convictions -- two for trafficking, two for possession -- from 1990 to '98, serving a total of four years behind bars. Prison only slowed his enterprise. For a time in the mid-'90s, he continued to direct a pot ring in Cleveland while housed at a Pennsylvania federal pen, according to court records.
Released in 1998, Baer returned to Ohio and again became a hands-on businessman. He resumed running a legitimate real estate firm that he and his ex-wife, Connie Baer, formed in 1994. CRB Properties specialized in renovating rundown houses -- and, more important, provided cover for his dope proceeds.
The combined revenue enabled Baer to lead a comfortable lifestyle, with a spacious home and a stable of cars. He owned a half-dozen race horses and indulged his gambling jones, playing the ponies at Thistledown and the craps tables at Windsor casinos. He wagered as much as $40,000 at a time, flaunting one girlfriend or another as arm candy.
Takach, convicted in 1988 for cocaine possession, insists he didn't know his friend had gone back to dealing after leaving prison. He believed Baer amassed his wealth from the dozens of houses CRB sold. He realized otherwise when Baer asked him in December 2000 if he wanted to make a quick grand or two by selling eight pounds of weed for him.
Court records show the FBI's probe of Baer, 39, began around the same time. Through snitches, wiretaps, and surveillance, the feds discovered that he received pot shipments of up to 1,000 pounds every few weeks from a Texas supplier named Samuel Carrasco. The owner of a small trucking business in Odessa, Carrasco had connections to dealers in Mexico who ferried dope across the border. Baer heard about Carrasco while in prison and "got a referral of sorts," says Jeffry Kelleher, Carrasco's Cleveland lawyer.
Once Baer received word of a new delivery, he dispatched a "team" -- usually two to four men -- to drive to Texas and haul the stash to Ohio in a semi. The team made the runs on weekends, when trucking scales are closed -- the better to elude authorities. He and his cohorts were less guarded back in Cleveland, transferring the dope into vans and SUVs in broad daylight, often in the parking lots of hotels and malls.
From there, Baer would store the dope at CRB houses under renovation or at the home of Jorge Pagan Sr., a company handyman. Pagan broke down marijuana bales into one-pound bricks, getting help from some of Baer's other dealers, including Rich Baer, 20, the oldest of Clyde's two sons.
Wary of phone taps, Clyde Baer and his loose network used mundane code words like "carpet," "burritos," and "pool liner" when discussing dope. On four occasions between January and August of last year, Takach says, Baer gave him eight pounds to sell. The pot had a street value of about $1,200 a pound; Takach would mark it up by $200 to $600. He sold to friends and acquaintances, most of whom wanted an ounce or less. Dealing provided him with extra cash and helped reduce the cost of his own habit -- he smoked 7 to 10 joints a day, each as fat as his pinky.
"If you're going to smoke it," he says, grinning, "smoke it right."
But the smile slips away when he talks about the case against him. In depicting Takach as an insider, the FBI didn't lack damaging evidence. According to investigators, Takach told an unnamed snitch last May that he had $11,000 worth of Baer's marijuana on the street. In a number of recorded calls, Baer asked Takach about collecting his money -- or "luggage," "quotas," and "receipts," as they referred to it -- and arranged payment meetings with him. The feds also listened in on Takach's calls with customers as they discussed the quality and cost of his dope.
Despite Takach's claims to the contrary, Vogt regards him as an all-too-typical dealer undone by the lure of easy money. "It's kind of like Monopoly -- when people start winning, they don't want it to end."
The FBI tightened its net around Baer as last summer wore on. By the time he bought a new semi in August and customized it with a hidden storage container, authorities were ready to bag him.
Around 8 a.m. on Monday, August 13, Baer met his team near the Pearl-Brook Shopping Center in Parma. His underlings had traveled from Texas in the new truck with a 560-pound payload. As Baer and three others unloaded the goods into a van that Baer drove, the FBI swooped in.
A few miles away, Takach slept, unaware that the van he lent to his friend was being seized in a bust that would lead the evening news. He frequently allowed friends and neighbors to use his two work vans. So when Baer called the day before to ask if he could borrow one, Takach agreed without a second thought. "He's my friend -- why wouldn't I let him use it? A friend says he needs something, you give it to him. I didn't know what he wanted it for."
He found out soon enough.
The pounding at the front door sounded like mortar fire.
Samantha reacted first, stumbling downstairs from the second floor to unlock the door. Within seconds, 10 cops wielding guns and flashlights invaded the home. The racket awakened Takach's wife, Rochelle, asleep in the couple's third-floor bedroom. She scurried down to the second floor in time to see officers hold her six-year-old son Carl at gunpoint as he lay frozen in bed.
Two men rushed to the third floor and burst into the bedroom. "I'm sitting in my bed, and I'm wiping the boogers out of my eyes, while these guys are diving across my floor," Takach recalls.
They screamed at him to tell them where he kept his stash. He pointed to a small upright safe. It held only a half-pound of pot and a BB pistol.
Convinced there had to be more contraband, officers tore through the house. They turned up nothing. The show of force for such a tiny amount of weed baffled Takach. Even more confusing were the repeated questions about why Baer took the van; he responded that he had no idea. As neighbors looked on, officers led him out in handcuffs.
The federal courthouse's holding pen had little elbow room by the time Takach arrived. A dozen suspects milled about, most of whom he had never met. He recognized Clyde and Rich Baer, Pagan, and his friend Joe Csorba, who lived with Takach for a couple of years before moving out last summer. Connie Baer also was escorted in. Conversations stayed at a whisper. Takach quietly asked Clyde Baer what was going on. He got only a cryptic answer.
"Just tell 'em what happened," Takach says Baer told him. "Do what you got to do, buddy."
It may have been Baer's way of trying to protect his friend.
Based primarily on Baer's use of his van, prosecutors hit Takach with federal conspiracy charges to distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana. They also accused him of laundering $17,500 for Baer through a bank account held by his father, Leonard Takach. Under federal sentencing guidelines, he faced a mandatory minimum of 10 years if convicted.
In all, the feds rounded up 16 suspects and confiscated $3.5 million, most of it found in the attic of Carrasco's Texas home. They seized 14 houses belonging to CRB Properties and nearly $100,000 from Clyde and Connie Baer.
From Takach, they seized a whopping $1,850.
Vogt, without offering specifics, puts Takach at the low end of the profit scale in Baer's venture. Takach estimates he made less than $8,000 dealing. He admits that while aware of the risks, he took a street-wise gamble -- never guessing he'd become trapped in a federal sting.
"I figured if I got busted, I might have to do 18 months at most. I didn't expect nothing like this."
Gary Eisner, Takach's court-appointed lawyer, says that in state court, his client might have received no more than probation. "He's a very small link in the chain. He didn't know Clyde Baer was using the van for those purposes."
Authorities couldn't agree less. Assistant U.S. Attorney Sharon Long, lead prosecutor on the case, swats away the idea that Takach had only a bit part. "He was loaning Clyde Baer his van to pick up the marijuana brought into the Cleveland area from Texas. He's more involved than he would admit."
Adds Vogt: "He was aware of the scope [of the operation], no question."
In phone calls taped by the FBI, Baer alerted Takach when he had a new batch of dope. On one occasion, Takach brought a van emptied of plumbing supplies to Baer, which authorities took as proof that he understood what Baer wanted it for; on another, he told Baer that he needed to fix the van's taillight "so you don't get pulled over for something stupid." During stakeouts, the feds witnessed meetings between Baer and Takach, as well as Takach and his customers.
Yet in dozens of conversations between Baer and Takach, no explicit mention of a larger network occurs. Authorities say it's typical for underlings to be clueless about the overall scheme. The scam run by Baer appears to fit that mold -- he's the sole person familiar with everyone nabbed in the investigation.
Takach and Rich Baer were the only defendants willing to talk to Scene. (The others declined comment or did not respond to interview requests.) Both men maintain they were unaware that the other dealt until they landed in the holding pen together. Even Connie Baer remained in the dark about her ex-husband's side business, they say. "Nobody knew what was going on," Takach says.
"He'd tell me, 'You can't let your mom know about any of this. She'll kill us,'" says Rich Baer of his father. His dad didn't want him to become involved, either, but relented when Rich told him he planned to deal one way or another.
"This was something I wanted to do. I don't blame anyone but myself."
A Cleveland native and high school dropout, Takach scraped by after his discharge from the Army in 1976. He worked as a cab driver and plumber until starting his own business in the early '90s. Along the way, he picked up a dizzying array of dependents.
He has two sons and two daughters from a relationship in his early 20s. The youngest daughter, 16, lives with him, while his youngest son, 20, works for his company. His eldest daughter, 23, lives with four of her five children in Tennessee. She doesn't work, so Takach sends her money. He pays child support to his ex-wife, Cindy Cspel, who lives in Parma and shares custody of Samantha. When Cspel, who has a son from a previous relationship, can't make ends meet on her waitress wages, "Dave helps me out and gives me a little extra," she says.
He also supports Rochelle, a stay-at-home mom, and her son Carl; she has another son who lives with his father in Cleveland. If Baer's pot empire afforded him affluence, the prosperity didn't trickle down to Takach. His house is an ongoing home-improvement project, in need of new carpet and fresh paint. His 1977 Harley ranks as the couple's priciest possession, and their idea of a getaway is taking the kids to a Lodi campground, where they keep a trailer.
Under the strain of propping up his family, Takach found Baer's offer to deal too tempting to refuse. Yet Rochelle, 27, fumes at the way authorities portrayed her husband as a do-nothing lout who lived high off drug profits. Sitting at the couple's dinner table, she points to a three-inch-tall pile of receipts from plumbing jobs he's handled in the past few weeks.
"They act like all he did was sit around with his thumb up his ass, collecting weed money. He didn't make hardly anything. He works his butt off -- look at this stack. But with all these people counting on him, he had to do something."
Cspel remains on good terms with Takach, and she and Rochelle help each other look after the kids. Whatever skeptics may think about his motives, Cspel stands by her ex-husband. "I've never seen a man be better to his kids than Dave. He takes care of all of them, no matter where they are. He got into trouble because he was trying to help all of us."
Takach claims the feds threatened to charge his wife and father in connection with the probe unless he copped a plea. Prosecutor Long refuses to divulge details of the pretrial negotiations. Asked if authorities put that kind of pressure on Takach, the FBI's Vogt says only, "Not that I'm aware of."
But they did pore over Leonard Takach's bank accounts and financial holdings, believing he might have helped his son launder $17,500 for Baer. Both Takach men tell the same story: Dave declared bankruptcy in 2000. Court records show that he held $98,000 in assets -- his house accounted for $95,000 -- against debt of $116,000, with $112,000 of that resulting from a business loan he defaulted on. Unable to open a bank account of his own, he deposited money in his dad's. The money transferred last May from Leonard's account to Baer's was a payment on Dave Takach's house.
Though authorities often squeeze family members to extract guilty pleas from defendants, Leonard sees their tactics as medieval. "They grab you by the short hairs and don't let go till you scream."
Says Dave: "If we were going to launder it, why the hell would we move it from one bank to another? We could have put it in shoeboxes. Do they think we're that fucking stupid?"
Leonard, 67, retains the feistiness of his youth, when he was known to scrap with police on occasion. He remembers Dave as a lazy teenager who he literally smacked upside the head to get his attention and eventually booted out of the house. Still, he thinks his son turned out all right, even if he failed to heed his warnings about drugs.
"For the last three, five years, he's been busting his agates trying to get that house straight and support his family," Leonard says. "How the hell's he supposed to know what that guy was going to be using the van for?"
More character testimonials come from outside the family. Sue Vilella, who lives across the street from Takach, says he's beloved by kids in the neighborhood, fixing their bikes and taking them for rides on his Harley. While most neighbors had an inkling that he dealt drugs, she says, they knew he sold strictly to friends and didn't deal to children.
"Everyone has their skeletons," she says. "David needs to serve time for what he did, but he's got a good heart."
Kathi Santa runs a motorcycle supply shop two blocks from Takach's house, and her daughter plays with Samantha. "He's a sweetheart, and he takes everyone in," Santa says. "He takes his wife's kids in, his ex-wife's kids, his kids' kids. He's just a good guy."
But the longer he sold pot, says Takach's longtime friend Tom Biggart, the more he teased fate. In their 20s and 30s, the two men rode their Harleys all over the state, with weed their constant companion. But since the bust last August, Biggart has become wary about hanging around his old pal.
"You can't be doing that shit nowadays. It'll catch up with you -- and it did."
At their May 8 sentencing, Takach and his 15 co-defendants each took their turn in front of U.S. District Judge Donald Nugent. All of them had accepted plea bargains, but the penalties -- thanks to sentencing guidelines -- still cut deep. Clyde Baer: more than 21 years. Carrasco: 15 years. Pagan: 9 years. Rich Baer: more than 4 years. Connie Baer: 18 months. Sentences for the others ranged from one to seven years.
Save for Rich Baer and another dealer in his 20s, the defendants are in their mid-30s to early 60s. Attorney Kelleher, who represented the 54-year-old Carrasco, offers a wry smile when considering the lot of them. "These are people my age. They have gray hair. They should be looking for Viagra, not marijuana."
Albert Giuliani represented Joe Csorba, 47, who received a one-year sentence for little more than fetching dope for Takach's customers when his friend wasn't home. "These guys are not Jesse Jameses by a long stretch," the lawyer says. "They're about as harmless as you can get."
The severe sentences against so many minor players forces the question of whether a nine-month probe that likely cost well into the six figures was worth it. Naturally, the FBI believes so, arguing that nailing the likes of Baer and Carrasco has a ripple effect on other kingpins. Beyond that, says the agency's Vogt, "What we seized was more than what was spent on the investigation."
It's a fair point. But if Baer and Carrasco got theirs, it seems that a low-level dealer like Takach, described by his attorney as "a gentle giant" and "almost bashful," perhaps got too much -- even in the eyes of one FBI agent.
According to Takach, a month after the bust, Special Agent Todd Platt dropped off the van that Baer had borrowed. Takach invited Platt into the house. The agent, familiar with the family's private matters from hours of eavesdropping on their phone conversations, asked how their bathroom renovation was shaping up and even advised Takach's 16-year-old daughter to dump her sad-sack boyfriend. Before he left, Takach says, Platt told him, "You're not who we thought you were."
Through an FBI spokesman, Platt denies making the comment. But after Takach's sentencing, he spoke briefly with Rochelle in the hallway outside the courtroom. She says he invited her to call him if the family runs into problems while Dave's locked up.
Rochelle, her brown eyes ringed by dark circles of insomnia, appreciates the offer. But it's scarce solace as she wonders how her family will survive. "I'm sick to death. I don't know what's going to happen to us. I don't know how we'll manage. They've ripped this family apart."
Takach tries to relieve his anxiety by smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. He knows the obvious rejoinder to his dilemma: Hey, pal, you shoulda thought of all this before you started dealing. But he needs no more reminders of the damage wrought than the one Samantha gives him almost every day. It comes in the form of a question, and leaves him unable to speak.
"When are you going away, Daddy?"