Depending on the season, there often are more than 1,500 illegal marijuana grows in Stanislaus County, the Sheriff’s Department estimates. As of Thursday morning, there’s one less.
With machetes, circular saws, even a chainsaw, deputies cut down nearly 3,400 plants growing in 13 greenhouses at a residence in the Monterey Park Tract about six miles south of the Sheriff’s Department.
Nine people were detained. Among them were juveniles including a 16-year-old male who, the investigation indicates, was running the operation under the of direction of his parents, who are in Mexico. Ages, and the names of the adults detained, were not immediately available.
There is no such thing as a legal outdoor marijuana grow in the county, Sheriff’s Department spokesman Sgt. Joshua Clayton said, so the illegal operations are fairly obvious. Especially one this size, which he called “pretty substantial.”
The department learns about grows from Crime Stoppers calls and citizen tips. Deputies come across them while responding to calls for service. Sheriff’s Department aircraft patrols spot them easily, as was the case with this one, Clayton said.
On how long the growing operation might have been there, the sergeant said, “My guess is for a grow like that, it’s been there a few years, easily. You start with one greenhouse, it goes to two, it goes to three, it goes to four.
“They even broke it up, north side and south side. The south side was getting near the time they were going to start harvesting it — it was starting to bud. The north side was the new plants that were just recently planted.”
The search warrant was served by the Sheriff’s Department’s Community Resource Unit and Special Investigations Unit, both of which include some members of the SWAT team.
Leaving shortly after 6:30 a.m., deputies traveled from the Hackett Road Sheriff’s Department headquarters south on Crows Landing Road to the tract in a caravan — an armored rescue vehicle, many marked units and a few unmarked cars.
The morning winds carried the smells of the dairies and other ag operations in the countryside. Until, that is, the deputies were on Monterey Avenue, where farm odors quickly were overwhelmed by the skunkiness of the marijuana.
About 7 a.m., at the property on the 7800 block of Monterey Avenue, across from Peace Church of God in Christ, deputies used a public-address system to announce — in both English and Spanish — their presence and call for any occupants of the house to come out. They broke out windows of a car parked in front, to ensure they wouldn’t be surprised by anyone who might have been sleeping or hiding in it, Clayton said.
Immediately, people bolted from the backyard of the home, where sleeping bags, cots, a kitchen shack and more later were discovered. Within an hour or so, seven had been apprehended — two by the jaws of K-9s.
Deputies used bean-bag guns or some other nonlethal weapon to shoot out two exterior surveillance cameras, lest someone be watching from inside or a remote location, Clayton said.
The sergeant was stationed outside a neighboring house, where he said a department aircraft had spotted another, smaller pot operation. The deputies had no warrant to serve at that home Thursday morning, but when the residents came out and began to drive off, he said to them, “You might want to get rid of anything illegal you have back there. Hint, hint.” Because if they didn’t, deputies likely will be back with another warrant.
When deputies were about to enter their target home, a man and woman emerged — the eighth and ninth people apprehended Thursday morning.
At that point, a robot was sent in to ensure the house was clear, and deputies followed with mirrors on poles to look around corners. About 9:20 a.m., once deputies were sure there was no one else in and around the home, the cutting of the marijuana plants began. It was a job that likely would keep them out there until 1 or 2 p.m., Clayton said.
The legalization of recreational marijuana use in California has had little or no effect on the illegal operations locally, the sergeant said. “They’re not paying attention to the laws, regulations and rules,” he said. “A new law is enacted, or a new county ordinance is enacted, and they don’t abide, they really don’t pay any attention at all.”
Shutting down the illegal operations is important to protect the legal industry and cannabis users, Clayton added. When a black market exists and people have the option to purchase from a legit shop that charges taxes vs. a place that doesn’t, many people will go the much cheaper route, he said. “But they’re unregulated, untested, and believe me, there are some nasty chemicals you wouldn’t want to go in your body.”