Carly Gelsinger • Staff Writer
Santa Clara County Sheriffs eradicated a $10.2 million rural marijuana operation Friday, pulling out 3,400 plants by hand, root and all, and escorting them by helicopter to be used as evidence in the prosecution against the suspect involved in the pot grow located below Mount Madonna County Park, south of Highway 152.
The suspect, Alvaro Sanchez, 24, of Morgan Hill, is at Santa Clara County Jail on Friday after being treated at a local hospital for a non-life threatening gunshot wound to the arm, inflicted by Santa Clara County Deputy Sheriff Justin Harper during the pot grow raid on June 28, according to Sheriff’s Department spokesman Sgt. Jose Cardoza. After being shot around 11:45 a.m. at the site, the wounded Sanchez turned himself in near the crime scene around 3 p.m.
Sanchez faces four felony charges for unlawful cultivation of marijuana, assault with a deadly weapon, commission of a felony while armed with a firearm and possession of marijuana for sale.
“They’re not going to shoot someone for no reason,” Cardoza said. “Those involved in illegal grows will do what it takes to protect their operation from poachers and can be very dangerous.”
As of Monday, another suspect who fled the scene remains at large, but Cardoza said that deputies do not have enough information on him at this point to continue a search.
The eradication comes during marijuana harvest season, the most common time of year for busts. Cardoza did not give specifics about events leading to the eradication, but said that deputies have been aware of the operation since planting season in early spring thanks to tips and anonymous calls and routine deputy surveillance of marijuana grow-prone areas.
Sometimes, investigators know where to begin looking for a pot grow, as they often crop up at the exact location of previous grows.
“Most the time these guys aren’t too smart, and they’ll start a grow in the same spot where another grow has already been eradicated,” Cardoza said. The flowering marijuana plants stood about 3-feet tall, and because of their girth and sheer number, deputies spent all day removing them.
The next step for the eradication team is to return the site to its natural state in the fall (when they are done with the rush of eradications in the summer), including cleaning up the trash and equipment that growers left behind and restoring the water and soil to their pre-pot farm status.
A 3,400 plant pot grow is an averaged-sized rural pot grow for Santa Clara County, and Cardoza expects to see “several more eradications similar to this before harvest season (summer) is over.”
So far in 2012, 48,856 marijuana plants have been eradicated in Santa Clara County. Deputies have also made eight rural pot grow arrests and seized six firearms. Cardoza said 2011 was a record-breaking year for marijuana eradications and arrests, with 164,392 plants uprooted by deputies during summer harvest months, as well as 30 arrests of the farm suspects.
This most recent incident isn’t the first time an eradication has turned violent in the county. Since 2005, three officer-involved shooting incidents have occurred over rural pot grows.
Cardoza said that this grow may be in connection to a larger operation or cartel, but that won’t be confirmed until the investigation concludes.