CLEVELAND NATIONAL FOREST — An Orange County sheriffs' helicopter, investigating reports of shots fired near Ortega Hot Springs on Saturday afternoon, discovered about 3,000 carefully tended marijuana plants almost ready for harvesting. It was one of the largest outdoor drug seizures in a dozen years, police said.
Sheriffs' investigator Sgt. Al Coutts said on Sunday that the value of the crop found on a quarter acre 500 yards east of Ortega Highway was "conservatively" estimated at $500,000. No arrests were made.
"It was a very well-thought-out operation," Coutts said, and included a sophisticated irrigation system. About a third of the plants had already been cut and were drying in the sun, he added.
The helicopter, piloted by deputies Thomas Buzelli and David Tilstra, was initially dispatched to investigate a citizen's report of gunshots in the area. While scouring the extremely rough terrain, the deputies "observed this high, almost fluorescent green patch," Coutts said, "a virtual forest. . . tucked in among the oak trees."
The sheriffs' bomb squad was dispatched to the area to search for booby traps, but none were found. Narcotics officers later walked and crawled in from the highway, sometimes on hands and knees, along a dry creek bed. A small contingent of officers stood guard over the plot through the night Saturday.
Investigators eventually set up a command post Sunday at a ranger station in the national forest, which is off Ortega Highway 13 miles east of the crop site.
What officers found, Coutts said, was a model of efficiency. A 900-foot garden hose led from a natural spring to the plot, with sufficient gravity to provide drip irrigation and even power a sprinkler.
"A little dirt, a little sunshine and a little water--that's the magic elixir for growing weed," Coutts said.
The narcotics officers spent most of Sunday morning chopping down the plants, which were 6 to 10 feet tall. They were cut at ground level and the stumps were pulled, Coutts said.
The cut stalks were then loaded into nets and airlifted to the sheriffs' evidence facility. They will be stored temporarily and, with the exception of a few plants saved for evidence, destroyed after a court order is issued.
"We do this a couple times a year," Coutts said, noting that Cleveland National Forest is favored by marijuana growers because it is "one of the last semi-rural areas we have in our county."
Coutts said the Sheriffs' Department had made regularly scheduled sweeps over the area last week, but overcast weather probably kept the helicopter crews from noticing anything. He added that the summer-long marine layer that has blanketed much of Southern California also prevented the plot from being detected much sooner.
"Today or tomorrow there are going to be some very unhappy campers," Coutts said of the growers.
Staff photographer Adrienne Helitzer contributed to this report.