Jeff Jardine

Pot farm? Not in my back yard, ex-Modesto police volunteer says

Wayne Seawright, 80, of Modesto looks at his garden that includes tomato plants not doing as well as he’d like at his home in the Highway Village area of northwest Modesto. His 14 tomato plants and row of sunflowers, covered by plastic until mid-May, must have looked like a marijuana grow to somebody. Aerial surveillance compelled the local drug enforcement agency to send a letter advising him to get an attorney because he faced arrest. Seawright, who retired after 36 years with the James River Co., spent six-plus years as a senior volunteer with the Modesto police.
Wayne Seawright, 80, of Modesto looks at his garden that includes tomato plants not doing as well as he’d like at his home in the Highway Village area of northwest Modesto. His 14 tomato plants and row of sunflowers, covered by plastic until mid-May, must have looked like a marijuana grow to somebody. Aerial surveillance compelled the local drug enforcement agency to send a letter advising him to get an attorney because he faced arrest. Seawright, who retired after 36 years with the James River Co., spent six-plus years as a senior volunteer with the Modesto police. jjardine@modbee.com

Wayne Seawright spent nearly seven years as a senior volunteer with the Modesto Police Department.

Now 80 and long retired after a 36-year career at the old James River Co., he takes pride in having made many friends during that volunteer stint, among them then-Chief Roy Wasden, Detective Jolene Gonzalez and others. By Seawright’s own account, he never had a negative brush with the law in any form.

“The last speeding ticket I got was in 1960,” he said, adding, “I don’t think I’d be considered a criminal.”

Wasden, now Turlock’s city manager, agreed.

“He’s one of the finest people I met in 40 years in law enforcement,” Wasden said. He relied on Seawright to calm angry neighbors in the Highway Village area after a police raid went bad and an 8-year-old boy was accidentally shot to death.

So imagine Seawright’s reaction to the letter he received in the mail the day after Memorial Day, accusing him of growing marijuana in his yard.

It bore the heading of the Stanislaus Drug Enforcement Agency, composed of officers assigned from local police departments and the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department. The agency frequently works with state and federal agencies and routinely arrests drug manufacturers and dealers. This particular letter, Modesto police Chief Galen Carroll said, resulted from aerial surveillance from the department’s Modesto Narcotics Enforcement Team.

It told Seawright the office had received information that marijuana was being grown on his property and that he could face jail time and severe fines if convicted. If fined civilly, it could be $250,000 or “twice the gross receipts, whichever is greater.”

The scary part to Seawright and wife Tommie, who live on their retirement income, came at the end of the first paragraph.

“You should consult an attorney concerning this letter,” it read.

Tommie had open-heart surgery a few years back, and she certainly didn’t need that kind of excitement.

So what happened? How did a law-abiding couple of retirees, who raise tomatoes, sunflowers and are still waiting for their cucumbers to break the soil in their backyard garden, somehow become the Crommelin Street Cartel?

Carroll said MNET’s drug agents began doing aerial inspections several years ago. The first one revealed more than 100 backyard pot farms in the city and county pockets within the city. Letters went out. The next year’s flight turned up about 40 grows. This year, there were very few.

The letters warn suspected pot growers “to knock it off,” Carroll said, adding that the agents are well-trained in recognizing marijuana plants from the air. The vast majority of the time, they are right, he said.

“This one was wrong,” he said, with the photo at his fingertips as we talked on the phone.

Wayne Seawright years ago fashioned heavy wire frames to help his tomato plants handle the weight of the fruit as it grew and gained weight before picking. When the plants first go in the ground in early April, he covered them with clear plastic that allows the sunlight in while protecting them from spring storms that can produce brief but damaging rain or hail.

“They don’t look like tomatoes in the photo,” Carroll said.

Beneath that plastic on a bright, sunny day, the plants look greener from the air and can resemble the translucence of healthy pot plants. And while some of the people on the Modesto force might remember Seawright, the agents see only the addresses and send the information to clerks who send out form letters, Carroll said.

Many of the folks Seawright knew well, including Wasden, Dave Funk and Dave Gianotti, left the department or retired years ago. The institutional memory within any agency wanes with such transitions. Sgt. Kelly Rea, who heads MPD’s drug unit, worked under Funk in the Northwest Area but didn’t remember Seawright.

Seawright knows only that the department he served voluntarily for more than six years treated him, on paper, at least, like a drug dealer when his only crime is growing more tomatoes than he’ll ever need.

“We give them out in the neighborhood,” Seawright said.

He went to the police station the morning after receiving the letter, hoping to talk to Lt. Clint Raymer, who signed it, or Carroll, who happened to be away from the office.

“I went down there. I’ve called and left voice mails saying, ‘Please call me and get this straightened out today!’” he said. “All you have to do is stop by and I’ll walk you through the house, the shop, the garden – the whole place. No warrant needed. Anything they want to look at. All they had to do was to call me or come over.”

Rea returned the call and told Seawright that the drug unit gets 100 to 200 complaints a year about marijuana.

“I was at a community meeting (Wednesday) night and I had four people come up and complain about pot grows,” Rea told me Thursday. “I get more complaints about marijuana than about meth or any other drug. We investigate at least 50 outdoor grows a year. We don’t have the resources to do more, or we would. So we send a letter to discourage people from growing pot.”

Many of the outdoor grows are done on rental properties. Landlords who live elsewhere often first learn of the illegal activity from the letters, Rea said.

“They’ll say, ‘Thanks,’ and take care of the problem.”

Residents like Seawright who call the agency to complain about these letters actually make Rea’s job easier, he said.

“I tell them, ‘I take you at your word and we’re done with it,’” he said. “The ones who are growing it aren’t going to call me.”

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