Sheriffs raid Mt. Madonna; destroy $30 million in marijuana plants

Sheriffs raid Mt. Madonna; destroy $30 million in marijuana plants

During an undercover operation that snuffed out approximately
20,000, 3-foot cannabis plants from four illegal sites, law
enforcement officials raided

what looks like a football field of marijuana plants
– all in a row, standing in the sunshine

Wednesday afternoon in the forested heart of Mt. Madonna County
Park.
The crops are valued between $25 to $30 million, according to
officials from the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, who say no
suspects have been arrested and no weapons were found in relation
to the operation so far.
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During an undercover operation that snuffed out approximately 20,000, 3-foot cannabis plants from four illegal sites, law enforcement officials raided “what looks like a football field of marijuana plants – all in a row, standing in the sunshine” Wednesday afternoon in the forested heart of Mt. Madonna County Park.

The crops are valued between $25 to $30 million, according to officials from the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, who say no suspects have been arrested and no weapons were found in relation to the operation so far.

Deputies from the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office had to be airlifted to the rustic site by helicopter, which transported personnel two-by-two. The gardens were remotely nestled in the folds of rugged terrain offering no safe landing spots for the aircraft, so officers were harnessed two at a time to a cable extension, then dangled midair as they were flown over treetops and dropped off in the middle of a forest.

The entire effort was executed by five deputies from the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office Marijuana Eradication Team, who worked in conjunction with a dozen other agents from the California Department of Justice, U.S. Forest Service, National Guard and California Department of Fish and Game involved with CAMP – the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting. The group rendezvoused near the Sheriff’s Office Command Post at the Mt. Madonna Ranger Station Off Pole Line Road in Gilroy.

Comdr. Neil Cuthbert with the Department of Justice, who participated in Wednesday’s reconnaissance, said one pound of marijuana can sell for between $1,500 to $2,000 on the street. Each full-grown plant yields roughly one pound of product, according to Michael Doty, Capt. of Special Operations with the SCC Sheriff’s Office.

Cuthbert said the plants growing in the four sites were short and immature, ranging in height from 2.5 to 3 feet tall.

The eradication teams spent 45 minutes at each site. Two are located on private land on the outskirts of the park, while the other two are located on county land, according to Cuthbert. He described the clandestine cultivation as a “sophisticated operation,” possibly with generators and water pumps. Sgt. Troy Smith with the SCC Sheriff’s Office said growers often tap into nearby sources such as creeks, ponds or wells to feed their irrigation systems.

Photos provided by the SCC Sheriff’s office show a verdant hillside bursting with green plants in plain view. One location boasts a complete campsite stashed with dry goods, cooking equipment and black tarp strung up as a makeshift shelter. A frying pan still filled with food and perched atop a portable Coleman stove is also visible in the image.

When asked if allocating time and personnel towards marijuana eradication efforts is worth the required resources, Cuthbert pointed out “this is a public park.” Most growers are armed, he said, and pose a threat to unsuspecting hikers.

Cuthbert said illegal gardens also have negative effects on the environment. Clearing trees to make way for crops disrupts natural habitats, while rain washes fertilizers and pesticides into water tables.

In terms of protocol for disposing illegally cultivated marijuana, Cuthbert said sometimes plants are buried or burned on site, while other times plants are taken to a landfill. In this case, Sgt. Smith said agents pulled the young plants out of the ground, then cut them up.

More than 6.9 million plants with an estimated street value of $27.6 billion have been seized in California since CAMP began in 1983, according to the organization’s website.

Despite their ongoing efforts, however, Cuthbert but he hasn’t seen any decreases in illegal growing sites in the last year.

“Gardens are popping up all over the place,” said Doty. “We’ll eradicate one, then next season come back and it’s still there.”

From January to June, Doty explained officers begin scouting isolated areas by plane, helicopter or on foot, looking for spots that could potentially attract marijuana growers.

Agents will periodically check up on the same areas for any evidence of a garden, Doty explained. Then, once specific locations are under their radar, officials will routinely survey the region to identify possible culprits before eradicating the garden.

A federal grant provided through the Department of Justice provides funding for two full-time SCC detectives to pursue illegal cultivation and trafficking of marijuana, Doty said.

As for who discovered the Mt. Madonna sites, neither Doty nor Cuthbert were sure, but confirmed the area has been under watch since February.

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