Bust in Ceres nets $1 million worth of pot

October 3, 2011 

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CERES — Police are investigating a possible drug cartel connection to a large marijuana grow near River Oaks Golf Course.

Ninety-eight pot plants and 520 pounds of processed marijuana with a combined street value of more than $1 million was seized from a farmhouse on East Hatch Road on Friday night, according to Sgt. Dennis Perry.

The investigation started late last month when an officer with the department's street crimes unit noticed a strong odor of marijuana in the area.

Later, from the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department helicopter, the officer got an aerial view of a marijuana garden at 3831 E. Hatch Road, Perry said.

Friday, investigators went to the house. They found the renter, Maria Valenzuela, in the front yard.

Valenzuela, 51, told detectives she had a medical marijuana card and invited them to look at the pot grow. Perry confirmed that Valenzuela had a prescription, but it did not specify that she could grow or even possess the otherwise illicit drug.

When officers entered the home, they said a handful of people attempted to flee, but all were detained.

Inside, officers found 520 pounds of processed marijuana, which can sell for $1,500 to $3,000 a pound depending on its quality, Perry said.

Near a barn at the rear of the house, officers found 98 mature marijuana plants. A makeshift fence of plywood bordered the garden.

Around the pot garden were four long guns, including one with a scope, that were strategically located for concealment and quick access, Perry said.

Arrested on suspicion of cultivation of marijuana were Valenzuela, Miguel Madrigal, 63, Rodrigo Garcia, 26, Hugo Garcia, 26, Alejandro Lopez, 28, and an unidentified 17-year-old boy.

Rodrigo Garcia, Hugo Garcia, Lopez and the 17-year-old were placed on immigration holds because they are undocumented Mexican nationals. Lopez is a convicted felon and had been deported from the United States once before, Perry said.

Detectives said they are investigating possible Mexican drug cartel connections because of the scope of the growing operation and the suspects involved.

Perry said all of the marijuana was dumped into an incinerator on Crows Landing Road on Monday morning. It took two city dump trucks and a trailer to transport it.

Staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at etracy@modbee.com or (209) 578-2366.

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