Alpine County official: Pot plants worth $30 million | RecordCourier.com

Alpine County official: Pot plants worth $30 million

by Sheila Gardner
sgardner@recordcourier.com

Alpine County deputies along with state and federal agents used a helicopter, dump trucks and a backhoe Friday to destroy thousands of marijuana plants with an estimated $30 million street value.

Undersheriff Robert Levy said 35,000-40,000 plants have been uncovered in the past month. Officials expected to get rid of 10,000 plants on Friday.

He said the plants would be buried in Alpine County at an undisclosed location.

“These marijuana grows appear to be consistent with other marijuana grows found in surrounding counties that are being operated by Mexican cartels,” Levy said.

He said based on the size, the plants would be worth an estimated $30 million on the street.

“The cartels have been all over California, Nevada and Utah. It’s just new to Alpine County. This was a huge, huge organized grow with thousands of plants at a time. It’s not your typical locals or kids with a little backyard grow. This is large scale. These folks are armed and mean business,” Levy said.

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The gardens spanned multiple drainages and ridge lines, south of Markleeville, he said.

They were discovered by Alpine County deputies and U.S. Forest Service personnel.

Evidence indicated laborers were living on campsites while tending the plants.

“People were coming in late at night, under the radar and getting logistical support, getting food and water, whatever they needed. This was a major criminal cooperative. That’s organized crime. It’s not local people,” Levy said.

Alpine County has fewer than 1,100 residents.

Over the past several weeks, the sheriff’s office has been involved in extended surveillance and eradication operations, Levy said.

Additional state and federal resources were brought in as the 16-member sheriff’s office exhausted its capacity to handle the situation. Levy said all days off for the agency had been canceled.

On Aug. 11, the sheriff’s office raided a 7,200-plant operation in the south central part of the county. A suspect was arrested who allegedly was affiliated with Mexican cartel marijuana growers, Levy said.

The man was armed with a 9-mm handgun.

Levy said he was in federal custody in Sacramento.

“There was evidence on scene that additional suspects may have been armed,” he said.

On Sept. 1, the sheriff’s office raided a 3,700-plant garden near the Heenan Lake area of Alpine County.

Three men were seen fleeing the area upon the arrival of sheriff’s deputies and Forest Service agents, Levy said. No one was apprehended.

On Wednesday, an 18,500-plant garden in the south central part of the county was raided. There were no people at the site, and Levy said indications were that the suspects were packing up their camp.

On Friday, all 16 Alpine County deputies including Sheriff John Crawford, 11 Forest Service officers, four California Department of Justice agents, three Alpine County road personnel along with a helicopter, two dump trucks and a backhoe were working to eradicate the gardens.

Levy estimated that 10,000 plants would be destroyed Friday.

He couldn’t say how much marijuana may have been harvested and exported from the county, or what remained in the forest.

“It could be spread out. We have 726 square miles of national forest and 94 percent is publicly owned land,” he said. “There can always be more out there, it’s a big forest.”

He said the gardens had caused significant environmental damage to Alpine County’s high desert climate.

The campsites had garbage pits and scattered debris. Systems diverted water from small streams and creeks depriving the county’s riparian ecosystems of water to thrive.

Levy said there was evidence of BB guns which may have been used to kill small animals attracted to the marijuana plants as a food source. He said officials found numerous poisons and fertilizer.

“I worked in Mendocino County for the Department of Justice and we never had this kind of ongoing grow,” Levy said. “We’ve kind of hit the big time.

“We’ve enjoyed our own little piece of paradise and our intent is to reclaim it, to make Alpine County a very inhospitable place to grow marijuana.”

He said anyone convicted in the operation would be looking at federal prison if the gardens were on federal land.

He said campers and hikers attracted to Alpine County needed to be made aware of the gardens.

“Alpine County is deeply concerned about illegal marijuana growing affecting tourism which is the economic lifeblood of the county and local businesses,” Levy said.

“There’s no need to be paranoid. When you’re in the woods, anyway, you need to be aware. If you see something that doesn’t belong, leave the area and report it to law enforcement,” he said.

Anyone with information is asked to call Sgt. Ron Michitarian, (530) 694-2231, ext. 331.