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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

U.S. Task Force Finds Another Marijuana Crop on Forest Land

Drugs: Team involving military personnel discovers 4,700 plants north of Ojai, the third such farm spotted in the county in as many weeks.

September 20, 2000|HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In what has been the most bountiful season of pot eradication in Ventura County in years, authorities said Tuesday that for the third time in three weeks they have uncovered a massive marijuana farm on national forest land north of Ojai.

Authorities also confirmed that the most recent find was the work of a federal task force of U.S. military and Forest Service personnel who have used a fleet of helicopters to patrol Los Padres National Forest since July.

"They have been assisting us and other land management agencies," said Kathy Good, a Forest Service spokeswoman. "It helps us with the location of plants, and it gives them practice in reconnaissance techniques."

Since Aug. 31, when 4,000 mature marijuana plants were found in a rugged area near Matilija Canyon, the federal task force, teamed with county authorities, has dug up nearly 10,000 plants valued at more than $12 million, authorities said.

The single largest eradication of back-country pot farms inside the county's portion of Los Padres National Forest occurred in the summer of 1996 when 23,000 plants were seized.

"This year could be bigger than that because we know there is a lot more out there," Good said.

In this most recent case, the largest so far this year, authorities last weekend found 4,700 plants spread along a half-mile stretch of Tule Creek, about an hour north of Ojai off California 33.

The area, just west of Rose Valley Road, is several miles southeast of another forest spot called Potrero Seco, where authorities found 1,400 plants at a makeshift farm on Thursday.

The farm along Tule Creek, like the others found in that forest, was described as ripe and sophisticated. September, authorities say, is the prime month for harvesting, and the area's abundance of water and fair weather have made this an exceptionally good growing season.

"There's no doubt about it, it's been a bumper crop year," said Ventura County Sheriff's Capt. Mark Ritchie.

According to authorities, the crop was found last weekend by Forest Service personnel who were surveying the area by air as part of a federal joint task force that includes Army and Marine personnel.

The task force, which Good said has operated for several years, spends a few weeks each summer searching Los Padres National Forest for pot farms. Using 13 two-person helicopters and three of the Army's Black Hawk choppers, the task force started its mission in July and spent about a month patrolling Los Padres forest land in Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties before coming to Ventura County.

Good said the first part of the mission in the northern counties involved more than 100 soldiers from Louisiana but that the Ventura County operation was much smaller, involving Marines and Forest Service personnel who based themselves at Point Mugu.

During the flights, which occurred both night and day, military personnel practiced rappelling and other techniques while Forest Service personnel used several pieces of night- and day-vision equipment to search for pot.

After a Forest Service employee spotted the creek-side pot farm, Ventura County sheriff's officials were notified. They then surveyed the site from their chopper before transporting a dozen deputies, several Ventura police officers and county firefighters to an area near the farm. They hiked in from there.

"Four separate campsites within the cultivation area were located that contained food, clothing, ammunition and other supplies needed by growers," said Ventura County Sheriff's Sgt. Bob Garcia.

Forest Service officials also said they found irrigation lines, several dead animals--presumably eaten by the growers--animal hides and human waste and litter.

In addition, Good said, forest officials found a large amount of damage to the land, including trees and other vegetation that had been chopped down to make room for the pot plants, and poison that had been sprinkled on the ground to keep rodents away.

Unfortunately, Good said, such a scene is all too common at pot farms on forest land, locations that growers often choose over private sites because of their vastness and remoteness.

"They are finding more and more marijuana every day throughout the forest and the county," she said.

Ritchie said no suspects were found and that they often aren't because helicopter noise tips off growers, who will flee without the crops to avoid arrest. Nor have ground assaults always been successful because pot-growing operations typically have lookout people and all-terrain vehicles that allow growers to race off if officers get too close. In the three major busts this year on forest land, there have been no arrests, authorities said.

"Of course we would like to catch the growers, because if we can stop them we can stop some of the problem," Ritchie said. "But barring our ability to catch them, our main thrust is to keep the drugs from getting to the street."

And that they did in this case.

On Monday, county and federal officials chopped down more than 3,700 plants and hauled out more than 1,000 that had already been harvested. The plants, ranging in size from 2 to 7 feet, were flown out of the area and destroyed, Ritchie said.

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