AUGUSTA — When authorities found 146 marijuana plants growing inside the secure, fenced-in area at the Augusta State Airport last summer, they set up a camera to find the illegal gardeners.

Marlon Cloutier, 47, of Augusta, and an unidentified man were seen tending to the plants.

When Cloutier was interviewed by Maine Drug Enforcement Agency officers on Aug. 16, he confessed almost immediately, according to documents unsealed recently in U.S. District Court in Portland.

Cloutier, convicted on six arson charges two decades ago and ordered to repay more than $126,000 in restitution, told officers he and the other man planned to sell the marijuana because they needed money.

“They had previously grown marijuana near the airport but had it stolen, and he thought discovery of the marijuana plants would be less likely if the plants were inside the airport fence,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Joyce wrote in the prosecution’s version of events.

John Guimond, the airport manager, said Wednesday it came as a surprise to him when he was told about the operation several months later.

“It’s in an area that you couldn’t see from up above, in a thick pine grove area, not up on the plateau where the airport is,” Guimond said of the place where the marijuana patch was found, on the northeast side of the airport. “It drops off. There’s about 300 feet difference in elevation.”

Guimond said he was told police were called after someone along the Nordic trails of the Bond Brook Recreation Area saw a man go into the woods and became suspicious when he did not re-emerge for some time.

Augusta police officers conduct sporadic patrols of the airport perimeter and can see about 80 percent of the fence line from the airport plateau, Guimond said.

The airport, which the state owns and the city runs, also has had a fence-clearing project under way, but it started at the opposite side of the airport from the marijuana site.

Cloutier signed a document in October pleading guilty to the marijuana charge from August and to possessing 2.5 ounces of cocaine in South Portland on May 5, 2011.

“He was under investigation for the cocaine charge, a relatively small amount, and because he was under investigation for that, when they discovered his involvement with marijuana, he did admit it right away,” Jon Haddow, Cloutier’s defense attorney, said Wednesday.

Cloutier faces a minimum five-year prison term in connection with the federal offense of conspiracy to manufacture 100 or more marijuana plants. There is no minimum mandatory sentence for the cocaine charge.

“It’s the marijuana charge that will drive this sentence,” Haddow said, and under the plea agreement, Cloutier retains the right to appeal any sentence of more than five years.

Cloutier’s criminal record includes a state conviction for six counts of arson in 1992 as well as a burglary conviction at the same time.

He and two other men were convicted in an arson spree that involved burning barns and a house in Belgrade and Sidney over a 2.5-hour period on June 13-14, 1991. Prosecutors at the time said the men set the fires for fun.

Cloutier appealed his initial arson sentence and later was resentenced to a 20-year term.

Cloutier was released from state custody on Feb. 8, 2005, and completed his probation term April 1, 2012, according to Jody Breton, associate commissioner at the Maine Department of Corrections.

Haddow said Cloutier’s obligation to pay restitution to arson victims could be among the money problems he cited.

“He has been trying to make those restitution payments,” Haddow said. “He has three young children now and is essentially self-employed. He doesn’t earn a lot of money.”

Haddow noted that Cloutier has spent a lot of time in jail.

“When he’s been out of jail, he’s worked almost exclusively in dry-walling,” Haddow said.

Betty Adams — 621-5631
badams@centralmaine.com