Ca: Deputies diligent in taking down pot gardens

mapinc / 8/10/2011 By Rick Elkins, Source: Porterville Recorder

Garden Busted Near Plainview

In what has become practically an everyday occurrence, officers with the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department’s S.T.E.P. ( Sheriff’s Tactical Enforcement Personnel ) spent Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning taking down another larger marijuana garden.

So far this summer – which is turning out to be a busy summer – officers have eradicated approximately 70,000 plants. On Tuesday, Lt. Tom Sigley watched as two more dump truck loads of marijuana were hauled off from a site on Avenue 192 west of Plainview.

The garden busted was typical of what law enforcement is finding. The gardens are in plain sight, contain hundreds, even thousands of plants and people found at the site have medical letters of recommend to grow marijuana.

In Tuesday’s case, the letters of recommend, written by doctors, were for about 300 plants at the Avenue 192 site, but officers chopped down nearly 600 plants.

"This case is a perfect example of what’s going on," said Sigley. He said the recommend holder at the Plainview site was the same name as the one used in Goshen.

Officers also raided that garden Monday, getting 2,000 plants, some of which were 20 feet tall.

Sigley and Detective Gabe Macias said there are more than 150 gardens spread out through the rural areas of the county, maybe more than 200. Some are within the legal letter of recommend amount, but most are not. In the Goshen bust, the recommends were for just 600 plants.

Marijuana growing on the Valley floor has taken on a whole new look this summer. Not only is there a lot more, but the gardens are in plain sight and those tending to the gardens do not appear to fear prosecution. At the Avenue 192 site, officers had hit them with a code violation notice last week because the garden was not property enclosed and secured, yet there had been no attempt to harvest what they could before officers returned, or to flee.

Another new aspect this summer, the number of gardens in the foothills and mountains appears to have dropped off. Sigley said they have busted only four of those gardens. He said Fresno County is reporting the same thing.

With the gardens in plain sight, officials are concerned with theft and violence. Last year, a teenager was fatally shot when he was reportedly found trying to steal marijuana from a garden near Lindsay. Also, there has been talk of some people taking the law into their own hands and setting fire to gardens. Sigley advised against that.

"A lot of these people are armed," he noted, adding an AK-47 assault rifle was found last week at a garden near Terra Bella. He said growers will only become more protective as the crop matures and becomes more valuable, and that time is now. Many of the plants chopped down Tuesday were already flowering.

Sigley said the marijuana is hauled off and buried, rather than burned.

Gardens Are Known

Sigley did say they are not getting that many calls or reports of gardens. He said most gardens are spotted by deputies on patrol or from helicopter flights.

"We’ve flown the entire county," he said. "We know where they are, but we don’t have the resources to get to all of them," he added. He did say the two busts Monday were large and would "hurt" the owner of the plants.

So far, arrests have only been for cultivation for sale. The money backers of the gardens remain unknown, but officials know the Mexican cartels that use to operate in the mountains are now doing their business in the Valley.

Tulare County Assistant District Attorney Shani Jenkins said that an arrest for cultivation for sale can carry a sentence of up to three years in state prison, but Sigley said he was not aware of any of the suspects they have arrested getting that stiff of a sentence and with jail crowding, some never spend any time in state or county jails.

Macias said 80 to 90 percent of those arrested are not from Tulare County, but from Southern California. He said the same percentage of the letters of recommend are coming from Southern California doctors.

Both Sigley and Macias said the marijuana being grown locally is not for this area. Macias said most of it is being shipped to Los Angeles, then back East where the profit is greater.

"A plant worth $500 here is worth $5,000 back there," said Macias.

Sigley also said other illegal businesses have sprung up, including marijuana nurseries. He said they have found some gardens where the plants were started somewhere else and then replanted. There is also a black market for seeds.

MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.