Modesto police stumbled on an illegal poppy field Sunday afternoon behind a south Modesto home and questioned an 84-year-old man and a 58-year-old woman, authorities reported.
About 3:20 p.m., Modesto police Sgt. Ray Coyle was near the 600 block of Paradise Avenue looking for another address when he noticed the vibrant pink and purple poppy flowers, which are used to make heroin and are the key ingredient for all opiates. Some of the plants were more than 6 feet tall, investigators said.
Coyle recognized the flowers as opium poppies, then called a drug team to serve a search warrant at the home. The team pulled out about 3,700 flowers, which could have produced about 1 pound of heroin worth $5,000 to $10,000 wholesale, Modesto police Sgt. Ed Steele said. Plants would have to have been planted about five months ago, he said, to get as tall as they were.
Authorities said they also seized two quarts of liquid opium and a half-ounce of processed opium.
The couple, who live in a small house next to the garden, were not arrested because they did not appear to be a flight risk, Steele said. The man had only one leg, he added. Reports about the incident have been sent to the district attorney, who will decide whether to file charges such as manufacturing opium and possessing opium for sale.
The couple did not answer the door Monday evening at their home, between a doughnut shop and a Cambodian grocery store on Paradise.
Garden nearly bare now
A path through a wooden gate, its white paint peeling and topped by barbed wire, led to the small wooden house. On the other side of a carpeted courtyard was the garden, mostly empty now but for a burst of calla lilies and a few other plants.
"You think you've seen most of it, then occasionally something like this comes along," said Sgt. John Hallford, of the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department. Hallford runs two of the county's drug enforcement units. "It's definitely a shocker."
Hallford called the discovery of the opium poppies "a first" for Stanislaus County.
Authorities haven't seen large quantities of heroin in the area, he said, though an operation in Patterson in late February netted 11½ pounds of it, as well as $40,000 in cash and a half-pound of methamphetamine.
Hallford said the 84-year-old, whom authorities described as Southeast Asian, might have had experience growing and processing poppies from his homeland.
"If you're going to harvest that particular drug, you need somebody who knows how to do it," he said. "The younger generation doesn't know the same tricks from the old country. ... These are just not trades they've learned. Poppy harvesting is not a big one for young Asians."
Man cited medicinal use
"He wasn't a huge dealer," Hallford said. "I'm sure this was just an old guy who knew the trade."
The 84-year-old told authorities that he was growing the flowers for medicinal use, Hallford said.
Opium poppies can be used to produce a variety of medicines, including opium, morphine and codeine, according to Erowid.org, a drug Web site trusted by law enforcement agents.
From Afghanistan, Asia
Most of the world's opium is produced in Afghanistan, south Asia and parts of South America. It takes about 10 kilograms of opium to make one kilogram of heroin.
Sgt. Santos Ramos is the commander of a Sacramento-area narcotics task force. He was not involved with the bust but is an authority on narcotics in the valley. Ramos said he had not heard of any poppy field discoveries in the Sacramento area, although processed opium is present.
Authorities said they are trying to determine whether the couple was processing poppies at home in addition to growing them.
"There is an assumption that the individual who's growing isn't necessarily the person who's actually grinding it up and cooking it and turning it into the finished opium product," Ramos said. "Generally speaking, that person is a little lower on the food chain."
Modesto police ask anyone with information about this case to call investigator Steve Hinkley at 342-9178.
Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2235.