Ownership of a 213-acre ranch in Riverside County seized by federal authorities during a drug investigation was turned over to Orange County on Tuesday because of the central role its Sheriff's Department played in cracking the case.
Authorities say Rancho del Rio, located in a remote canyon near the juncture of San Diego, Orange and Riverside counties, was headquarters for a massive drug-smuggling operation moving thousands of pounds of marijuana and hundreds of pounds of cocaine each month.
Orange County deputies and federal drug agents raided the ranch March 1, 1985, and discovered $23,000 in cash, 50 rifles, three automatic weapons and an electric money-counting machine.
The owner of the ranch, Daniel J. Fowlie, 52, was out of the country at the time of the raid. But he was arrested and jailed recently in La Paz, Mexico, in connection with the torture-murder of U.S. drug agent Enrique Camarena.
Federal prosecutors are attempting to have Fowlie returned to the United States from La Paz to face murder charges.
Tuesday, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to accept the property from the federal government and called for a six-month study by the county administrative office to determine how it should be used.
The Sheriff's Department has proposed that the remote site be used as a tactical training center for law enforcement agencies throughout Southern California.
The property was made available to Orange County under a 1984 federal law that allows local police agencies to use property and cash seized from suspected drug traffickers to pay for drug-enforcement efforts.
Local law enforcement agencies have gained millions of dollars under the law from seizures of cars, boats, planes and cash. But Orange County Sheriff's Capt. Douglas D. Storm said no agency had ever received such a large piece of property.
The six-month study will also review the possibility of selling the property and using the proceeds to finance law enforcement activities. County officials have estimated the value of the property at about $1.2 million.
Acquiring the property will cost the county about $385,000 to reimburse the U.S. marshal's office for expenses and maintenance fees paid since the ranch was seized. The Sheriff's Department has proposed to pay the costs with money seized from other drug investigations.
Deputy County Counsel Art Walsted said Orange County is already negotiating with Riverside County about the issues raised when one county acquires property in another's territory.
Walsted said the issue could be resolved by an agreement between the two governments or they could move the boundary between the counties. Since the property abuts the Orange County line, Walsted said, the boundary change would be considered minor enough that it would not need to be approved by the state government.