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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

4,055 Pot Plants Near Ojai Seized

Crime: Farm in Los Padres forest is spotted in routine flyover. Growers fled before authorities arrived.

September 01, 2000|HOLLY WOLCOTT and GAIL DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OJAI — Authorities confiscated 4,055 mature marijuana plants Thursday after investigators spotted a makeshift pot farm during a routine flyover of Matilija Canyon, officials said.

The plantation's growers left the scene before authorities could find and arrest them, said Capt. Dennis Carpenter, who oversees the narcotics unit of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department.

The plants have an estimated street value of $4 million to $5 million, Carpenter said.

The medium-grade plants were in six groves spread over a mile in the rugged canyon in Los Padres National Forest north of Ojai, Carpenter said.

Sheriff's narcotics investigators found the farm about two weeks ago and watched the site in an attempt to spot the growers, officials said.

Authorities raided the site Monday and found about 3,000 plants growing in a cluster of five groves, Carpenter said. When authorities returned Thursday they found a sixth grove of 1,055 plans farther up the canyon.

Tall chaparral concealed the 6-foot-high plants, which would have been ready for harvest in about a month, Carpenter said.

Although far from designated trails, the site was fed by miles of hidden water lines and also had a large food stash, tools and two rifles, Carpenter said. The growers had an encampment fit for at least four people, he said.

Authorities also found two dead deer and a dead fox, which they believe the growers had killed, Carpenter said. Natural vegetation was also damaged.

The operation appeared to have been used at least last year and possibly before then, Carpenter said, adding that the growers expanded it this year.

Authorities say drug dealers and growers have long used Ventura County's back country, and that many growers have been tied to the Mexican Mafia.

With thousands of acres in private and national forest land, cultivators plant in April and start harvesting in early September, authorities said. Such intense pot farming has earned the county the reputation of being one of the top four or five marijuana-growing regions in California.

Thursday's seizure, the largest plantation find in the county in more than four years, is one of several massive operations uncovered since 1996 by county, state and federal authorities, who frequently patrol by airplane and helicopter. Sometimes trained law enforcement officers find the crops, but many others are found by hikers.

In August 1996, authorities uprooted about 6,400 plants in the rugged Sespe National Wilderness Area of Los Padres National Forest, about 30 miles above Ojai. Growers had concealed the plantation among bushes and under camouflaged tarps.

Authorities believed those plants were cultivated by the same people who grew more than 3,800 plants at a nearby pot field, which was found by deputies a week earlier. Together, those seizures were described as the largest confiscation of pot plants in the county's history.

Although never caught, the growers were believed to be part of Mexican cocaine and heroin cartels. Together the plantations were worth more than $25 million, officials said.

In September 1996, authorities received a tip that led them to 2,000 high-grade pot plants in Senior Canyon in Los Padres National Forest, rugged brush country high above the ranches near the private Thacher School.

Pot farmers for the type of operation found Thursday typically are paid to farm one or several sites over a growing season, Carpenter said. Their employers leave supplies at drop-off points, he said.

During pot-growing season, two sheriff's investigators are assigned full time to search for such operations, Carpenter said.

The illegal plants found this week were hacked off at the roots and hauled out by a 12-member ground crew from the Ventura County Fire Department plus about 15 officers from the Ventura County Sheriff's Department and Ventura Police Department.

The plants will either be incinerated or buried, Carpenter said.

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