Into a Sea of Green
After a minor early-morning shoot-out, a huge clandestine pot farm is destroyed.
Thursday, August 12, 2004
Off River Road southwest of Salinas, past a barn and through a gate, up a dirt track beyond lazy cows and into the woods along a ravine, tucked under the oak trees and scattered in patches connected by well-worn trails, grew, until Monday morning, millions and millions of dollars worth of sinsemilla.
The guys who nurtured the pot, from seeds in plastic coffee cups, liked to eat bananas and Cheez-Its. They drank Budweiser and Crown Royal. They made their own salsa. They were not above locally poached venison or white beans from a can.
They had a pet bird, or maybe a chicken, that they kept in a wire cage near their tents.
These guys, and there were at least three, also had some guns. Nothing exotic. In fact, the average homestead in rural America would have a comparable arsenal: a .22 caliber rifle, a .12 gauge shotgun, a couple of .38 pistols and a tiny .22 caliber handgun.
All had been abandoned. One of them may have been fired at officers the night before they were found.
As clandestine gardeners, they did a commendable job of growing the marijuana. One impressed narc called them “professionals.”
The narcotics officers had found out about the garden through a tip from a passerby. They made a plan to move in at night, surround the campsite, and capture the sleeping guards and gardeners.
“We were expecting to catch the bad guys,” Sgt. Jim Scariot, a narcotics officer who runs the county pot eradication team, says. “That’s why we had the SWAT teams.”
Instead there was a minor gunfight on the ridge. There was no sign that either side hit its target.
Scariot says the garden was most likely the work of a Mexican drug cartel. He says each of the plants—there were close to 6,000 scattered throughout the area—is worth about $3,000 because of its prominent, potent buds.
Planted possibly in the winter, the garden was separated into patches stretching all over a ridge—a ridge owned by someone else. According to investigators, the squatters/gardeners did their work unbeknownst to the landowners.
The largest complex of gardens was irrigated by a tarp-lined pool that fed four downhill lines. One patch of 15-foot plants cut into a hillside in a series of patches under the oaks, altogether about the size of a football field. The cops were calling it the “Sea of Green.” All that pot was worth a sea of green money to someone.
When camouflage-clad members of the county drug interdiction task force arrived on Monday morning at about 1am, one of the gardeners started shooting, according to sheriff’s deputies on the scene. The cops, who were armed to the teeth with automatic rifles and night vision scopes—shot back.
Two guys were seen soon afterwards running nearby, across the river downhill. The other guy, the alleged shooter, vanished into the forest, unidentified except for a blue shirt.
By early morning, the county sheriff’s SWAT team, another SWAT team from the Department of Corrections, a few troops from the National Guard, and a squad from the state’s Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) were hacking down groves of pot. Before it could be bundled up and hoisted away, a helicopter combed the ridges, flying low and turning fast, looking for the guy in the blue shirt.
Scariot walks up to the ridge along an old logging road. He’s got a pistol on his hip and a mask over his face. A line of state narcotics officers soon appears on the road behind him and Scariot leads them to a stand of marijuana plants that shines emerald green through the otherwise faded brush.
One officer asks his supervisor if he wants the plants pulled out of the soil by saying simply, “Roots?”
“No. Chop ‘em,” the supervisor replies, and with that, a whirl of machetes and sharp, short-bladed tools severs thousands of dollars of thick-stemmed pot from the earth. In minutes, the CAMP guys bundle it up in a heap and drag it down to the logging road.
The last one to leave the grove swings his machete into a black plastic irrigation line. His first chop produces a spray; the second, a gush of water pouring into the dirt.
Five hundred plants are eradicated from that hillside alone.
By noon on Monday, county detectives from the internal affairs office were waiting for the camouflaged narcotics guys, wanting to talk about the gunfight. When they met up at a staging area down from the ridge, a forensics technician, on scene to collect evidence, immediately took photos of the narcotics officers.
Meanwhile, a helicopter hoisted net after net of leafy, green plants from the gardens to a knoll above the ranch, accumulating it in a pile of vegetation that grew to be worth about $20 million, according to the investigators.
A public works dump truck would come and haul the marijuana heap to a spot where it could be incinerated, presumably far from innocent nostrils.