Outdoor marijuana grows are hard to hide. The height of the stalks, the unique shape of the leaves and the plant's musky scent all are dead giveaways.
Growers at homes in Riverbank and Modesto found that out Tuesday, when law enforcement confiscated more than 300 plants with an estimated value of $400,000 and made five arrests.
They were the latest in a series of pot busts across the county. Two weeks ago in Patterson, more than 7,000 pounds of marijuana was discovered behind rows of corn and plywood fences. Four men were arrested; they could face state and federal charges.
The scale was smaller Tuesday, although the situations were every bit as serious.
In Riverbank, Stanislaus County sheriff's drug agents found more than 200 marijuana plants growing at a ranchette just east of the Crossroads neighborhood. Three men were arrested.
Detective Richard Gonzalez spotted the 3- to 5-foot plants in the back yard of a home in the 5900 block of Roselle Avenue earlier this week. He obtained a search warrant, and Tuesday about 8 a.m., detectives with help from the sheriff's SWAT team raided the property.
In addition to the marijuana, officers found 2 grams of methamphetamine in the home. Officials estimated the pot's value at $150,000.
Dennis Dolin, 60, of Riverbank was arrested on charges of criminal conspiracy, possession of methamphetamine and cultivation of marijuana. Dolin was on federal probation for a drug charge.
Juan Valdovinos, 25, of Riverbank was arrested on suspicion of criminal conspiracy and cultivation of marijuana, and Anjmo McWilliams, 41, was arrested on a parole violation.
Plywood didn’t do the trick
A couple of hours later in a northwest Modesto neighborhood, police discovered more than 100 pot plants in the back yard of a home. Two men were arrested on suspicion of multiple drug-related felonies.
Sgt. Rick Applegate of the police narcotics enforcement team said neighbors in the 2000 block of Eicher Avenue became suspicious when 8-foot sections of plywood were attached to the home's fence, preventing people from seeing into the back yard.
Real estate agents and potential buyers recently looking at a home next door also called police, Applegate said, because some of the plants could be seen over the fence.
When seven drug agents investigated, they found 109 pot plants ranging from 3 to 9 feet tall. Applegate estimated that the plants would have yielded about 163 pounds of processed marijuana, worth at least $250,000. Twelve pounds of dried marijuana was discovered in the house, he said.
The plants took up most of the back yard. There was a drip irrigation system, as well as surveillance cameras.
"As soon as we got out of our cars, we could smell it," Applegate said.
Javier Salcedo, 50, who rented the house, was arrested on five felony counts: cultivation of marijuana, possession of marijuana for sale, manufacturing a controlled substance, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and being armed in the commission of a felony. He was arrested but received a citation allowing him to go to dialysis treatment.
Kayle Walker, 25, who also lived at the house, was arrested on charges of felony possession of methamphetamine, cultivation and possession of marijuana for sale, probation violation and being armed with intent to commit a felony. He also was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of possession of drug paraphernalia. He was booked at the Stanislaus County Jail.
Applegate said it is the second bust of at least 100 plants in the past two weeks in Modesto.
"As far as narcotics and marijuana cultivation inside and outside, there's no area of town that's immune to it," he said.
Two neighbors voiced increasing concerns about the area near Eicher Avenue, which is just west of Prescott Road and north of the Plaza Parkway shopping center.
"This neighborhood is infested with these dope houses," said Brian Delise, 38, who lives, along with his girlfriend and their three children, around the corner from the home where the pot was discovered.
He said neighbors saw plywood extensions added to the fence about three months ago, but that didn't keep the marijuana odor from being detected.
"You could smell (the plants) all the way down the street," Delise said.
Another neighbor, Ken Shaffer, has lived around the corner since 1992. He said foreclosures and increased gang activity have contributed to the downfall of the area. "When that happens, neighborhoods go down," said Shaffer, 65.
The men described residents as becoming increasingly fearful of gang members as well as suspected drug customers coming and going at all hours.
Delise said gang members have beaten some residents and broken car and home windows. "It's a nightmare," he said. "Everyone's scared of retaliation."
Shaffer said the majority of residents on his street are "elderly and very easily intimidated. I'm a 'Nam vet and I'm not easily intimidated.
"All it takes is a few good people to push back against the evil. The bad guys are like cockroaches — they scurry around."
Anyone with information about the Riverbank case can call Detective Richard Gonzales at (209) 869-7162 or Crime Stoppers at (209) 521-4636. Callers to Crime Stoppers can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a reward. Tipsters can text information to Crime Stoppers by sending a message to 274637. Just type "TIP704" along with the message.
Bee director of photography Joan Lee contributed to this report.