Merced police seeking grower of 'sophisticated' marijuana operation

Merced police say they are seeking the arrest of a 29-year-old man after officers reported finding 124 marijuana plants growing in a one-bedroom apartment.

There were also three small children living in the midst of the "sophisticated" indoor pot operation, which had a street value of about $100,000, police said.

Six officers with the department's Gang Violence Suppression Unit found the plants around 7 p.m. Saturday inside the 1003 T St. apartment of suspect Lebrado Sotero, according to Officer Joe Deliman.

Deliman said the officers arrived at the house and served a search warrant, smelling the plants' pungent odor before even entering the residence. Police were at the home responding to an anonymous tip.

Although investigators believe Sotero was at the home when officers arrived, Deliman said he likely escaped on foot.

"When he saw our cars, I am sure that he ran out of the back," Deliman said.

The suspect's wife, 24-year-old Lucilla Sotero, was at the residence when the search warrant was served. Deliman said the couples' children, two girls ages 2 and 5 and a 3-year-old boy, also were inside.

After searching the residence, Deliman said officers found 3 pounds of processed marijuana in addition to the plants, which were producing buds and ranged in height from 3 to 5 feet tall.

The 124 plants were grown in the apartment's single bedroom by using a variety of equipment such as grow lights, ballasts and an irrigation system. Deliman said the total value of the equipment was about $10,000.

The children slept on a single mattress with their parents in the apartment's main room, police said. Investigators also found marijuana seeds in apartment's bathroom.

"These kids were living in that atmosphere," Deliman said.

Deliman said investigators come across such operations in a small apartments about once or twice a year.

"They are more common these days," Deliman said. "This way they are able to get three or four harvests every year."

The couples' three children were placed in the care of Merced County Child Protective Services, Deliman said.

Lucilla Sotero was booked on suspicion of maintaining a place for the purpose of selling narcotics, cultivation of marijuana, possession of more than an ounce of marijuana, possession of marijuana for sales and child endangerment. She remains at the John Latorraca Correctional Center in lieu of $24,000 bail.