Pot burglars ransack indoor growing operation on Old Gilroy Street

Marijuana plant remains were scattered about Wednesday morning.

Police removed nearly 400 marijuana plants from a building in east Gilroy, less than two blocks away from an elementary school, after a passerby reported what turned out to be “crooks stealing from crooks,” according to Gilroy police Sgt. Joseph Deras.

Located at 230 Old Gilroy St., officers responded to the commercial building – which hasn’t been occupied by a licensed business since 2009 – at about 8 a.m. Wednesday, after a passing motorist noticed the front glass door had been shattered, Deras said.

Police found a rock about the size of a football on the floor in the front room of the building. The rock had apparently been used to break the glass on the front door, Deras said.

“Once police got inside, they found out there was actually an indoor marijuana garden,” he continued. “It looks like somebody went in there and ripped (the growers) off.”

Police said they removed 389 plants from inside the building, which was divided crudely into separate rooms with unfinished, unpainted plywood interior walls; some lined with reflective tape. Light panels hung over tables about two feet off the floor where plants were growing in individual containers when police entered the building.

Some of the plants were mature, and Deras said whoever was growing the marijuana had been doing so at that location for “a couple months, easy.”

Officers think the burglars made off with about 200 plants before the incident was reported. The unknown suspects also damaged some of the hydroponic equipment inside the building in the process of the theft.

No arrests have been made, and police are “working on (identifying) suspects,” Deras said.

By about 11 a.m., police had uprooted most of the remaining indoor plants, some of which were packed into burlap bags and transported for storage until the investigation concludes. After the investigation is over, the pot will be destroyed, Deras said.

California medical marijuana laws do not permit anyone to grow as much marijuana as was growing at the building on Old Gilroy Street, Deras said. Plus, the indoor operation was less than two blocks away from a school – Eliot Elementary School on Old Gilroy Street. It is illegal for even licensed marijuana users to use the drug within 1,000 feet of a school, unless the use occurs within a residence.

Both the owners of the marijuana and the burglars would be eligible for arrest and prosecution if police catch up to them, Deras said.

A marijuana cultivation operation such as this one on Old Gilroy Street – a heavily-trafficked residential area close to a school and dotted with legitimate businesses – can be “incredibly dangerous,” Deras said, especially if the grower and burglar had run into each other during the theft.

Plus, indoor growers often manipulate the electrical wiring in their facilities in order to minimize suspicion from the power company, Deras said. While that wasn’t the case in the building on Old Gilroy Street, such electrical tinkering can create fire hazards.

Deras pointed to an electrical panel or “hot box” inside the building that was balanced, for an unknown reason, on top of a 50-gallon barrel full of water that could have caused a fire had it fallen and been submerged.

Most recently, Gilroy police responded to an indoor marijuana operation last week on Lawrence Drive just west of the Army National Guard Recruiting Office, in which the grower or growers had tweaked the electricity equipment, Deras said. Ironically, police were also drawn to that operation as a result of a burglary.

During the Lawrence Drive incident, the thief or thieves made off with the entire stash of marijuana, but evidence of pot cultivation remained when officers arrived.

On Old Gilroy Street, the operation was “not as elaborate” as some of the marijuana facilities police have busted in private homes, Deras said.

He added that a neighbor heard some loud noises in the loading area toward the back of the building late Tuesday night, but did not suspect anything or report the commotion.

Across the street, longtime neighborhood resident Ricky Arias, 25, said “once in a blue moon” he has seen someone entering or exiting the building over the years, but he didn’t pay close enough attention to describe anyone associated with the building.

“They used to have an alarm that would go off constantly, but rarely would you find people in there,” Arias said.

He also said he couldn’t tell what the building had ever been used for as long as he has lived there.

The neighborhood is usually quiet, and Arias said he has never noticed any significant crime in the area.

Albert Bettencourt, 67, who spends a lot of time next door at the I.F.D.E.S. Lodge, said he has never noticed any serious crime in the area, other than young people occasionally “smoking marijuana” in a nearby outdoor park.

He has seen “a couple guys” in the loading area behind 230 Old Gilroy St. before, but it looked to him like they were loading and unloading mundane items.

The last licensed business associated with 230 Old Gilroy St. was Increte West, but that company closed at that location in 2009, according to building department staff with the City of Gilroy. The company name is still listed at the Old Gilroy Street location on Yahoo! and Google directories as a “precast concrete” supplier. Since 2005, the owner of the building is Ray Mendoza, Jr., and the property is zoned for commercial manufacturing.

Mendoza’s contact information could not be found and he could not be reached for comment.

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