August 16, 2012

Stanislaus authorities find Modesto pot garden worth $3.6 million

Narcotics agents seized thousands of marijuana plants growing outside in a small farm just south of Modesto as other investigators found more illegal marijuana gardens throughout Stanislaus County.

A task force of narcotics agents on Thursday seized thousands of marijuana plants growing outside in a small farm just south of Modesto as other investigators found more illegal marijuana gardens throughout Stanislaus County.

The Modesto police Narcotics Enforcement Team discovered a backyard marijuana garden with dozens of plants Thursday morning in Modesto, their fourth marijuana garden seizure this week.

The sophisticated outdoor growing operation found south of Modesto, however, is by far the largest marijuana seizure this week with investigators hauling away about 1,500 marijuana plants, weighing about 6,500 pounds and worth an estimated $3.6 million on the street.

“It’s a huge problem,” said Modesto police Lt. Rick Armendariz. “We can’t keep up with all the tips we get.”

An anonymous tip led the Stanislaus County Drug Enforcement Agency to the home in the 1900 block of West Service Road, between South Carpenter and Ustick roads. The task force is made of investigators from various police agencies in the county along with state and federal law enforcement officials.

The investigators arrested 11 men and a woman, all of whom appeared to be of Southeast Asian decent and lived on the property.

The investigators served the search warrant about 7:30 a.m. with help from the Stanislaus County sheriff’s and Ceres police SWAT teams. A sheriff’s helicopter flew above the property.

Armendariz said the suspects were apprehended without incident. They initially were detained and questioned before they were later arrested.

A manufactured home with a murky Koi pond is located at the front of the 10-acre property enclosed by a black iron fence. A few mobile homes sit behind the front single-story house.

The property is surrounded almond orchards and cornfields not linked to the marijuana-growing operation. It’s unclear whether the pot was being sold to suppliers locally, shipped elsewhere in California or to other states.

Based on the number of plants found, Armendariz said the growing operation is illegal and not covered by the state law that allows marijuana use for medicinal purposes.

“This is strictly for profit,” Armendariz said. “The criminals are hiding under the medicinal marijuana umbrella.”

After investigators received the anonymous tip, Armendariz said they discovered a Google Maps photo taken last year that revealed the marijuana plants growing in crop rows behind the homes.

He said the suspects were using a new technique to grow smaller plants not visible to passersby, but the plants were not covered and visible from above in the photo. Investigators found a sophisticated irrigation system providing water to the plants.

The plants seized were found in various stages of growth; most of them were mature and ready for harvest. Other marijuana plants were being grown in pots, and some that had grown up to 5 feet tall were placed in covered patios.

“Honestly, it looks like a huge nursery of marijuana plants,” said Armendariz.

While the task force investigated the rural growing operation, the Modesto police Narcotics Enforcement Team seized a backyard marijuana garden not far from the Briggsmore Plaza Shopping Center.

The officers found 88 marijuana plants at the home in the 1600 block of Dillon Drive, a few blocks east of Highway 99 and south of West Briggsmore Avenue.

Sgt. Rick Applegate, a supervisor with the narcotics team, said the plants weighed about 820 pounds without their stalks and ranged in height from 3 feet to 7 feet.

He said a man at the home was not arrested because he had no weapons or criminal history. Investigators, however, have not determined the legality of his marijuana garden.

The narcotics team has conducted four marijuana garden seizures this week and seven this month. Applegate said they have ramped up their investigative efforts after recent violence has resulted in deaths surrounding marijuana gardens.

On Aug. 7, a resident in east Modesto shot and killed a man suspected of burglarizing a home to get 100 marijuana plants growing inside. The plants were seized and the shooting is still being investigated.

In May, two people were killed after an apparent drug deal over 40 pounds of marijuana went awry at a south Modesto home. Applegate said he and his officers frequently find guns in homes with marijuana gardens.

Another reason for the recent series of raids is that summer is the growing season for marijuana and outdoor gardens are popping up all over the county. Applegate said investigators are receiving more tips from residents who suspect marijuana gardens in their neighborhood as news of the drug seizures spreads.

Bee staff writer Erin Tracy contributed to this report.

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