YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


1,179 Plants Seized in Latest Marijuana Raid in Back Country

Narcotics: More than 16,000 have been found this season. It's the eighth plantation destroyed in five weeks.


OJAI — Faced with a bumper crop of marijuana, a team of Ventura County narcotics officers swept into a rugged mountain canyon Tuesday and seized 1,179 pot plants during an early morning raid.

It was the eighth pot plantation destroyed by law enforcement officials in five weeks and brings the total number of marijuana plants cut down this season to more than 16,000.

Those plants would be worth as much as $70 million on the street and if not uprooted would make marijuana one of the county's top cash crops alongside oranges and celery.

Ventura County Sheriff Bob Brooks said there is no way to know how many clandestine pot farms are still operating in the wilderness that covers most of the county.

"The chances that we have it all are slim," he said.

But Brooks said helicopter crews are scanning the brush-covered hills of the vast Los Padres National Forest on an almost daily basis in hopes of crippling pot production and keeping marijuana off the street.

"It is a business for them," Brooks said of the deep-pocketed drug dealers he believes are behind the pot farms. "And if you can make it less profitable for them, then they'll either stop or go someplace else."

The pot farm raided Tuesday morning was about three miles from Reyes Creek Campground, about 40 miles northeast of Ojai. It was discovered last week by a low-flying helicopter crew, and raided by a team of six narcotics officers and 10 county firefighters.

Using machetes, the team hacked down 3- to 7-foot-tall marijuana plants growing along steep terraces in the canyon. The crop was well-irrigated from water running through a nearby creek.

Near the pot fields, authorities found three small encampments littered with trash, pesticides and irrigation hoses.

Although the camps were deserted and no weapons were found, Brooks said most growers are well-armed and pose a serious threat to hikers or hunters who may venture into the wilderness.

Officials have recovered AK-47s, shotguns and other firearms during other raids in recent weeks, the sheriff said.

Sheriff's Capt. Mark Ritchie, who oversees narcotics investigations, said the department has some leads on possible suspects from other raids, but no arrests have been made this season.

Catching pot growers is difficult, because they typically hear patrolling law enforcement helicopters and flee into the wilderness--perhaps days before officers land in the area, Ritchie said.

Marijuana is typically planted in the spring and harvested in September. This year, prime growing conditions are yielding a bumper crop that could be highly profitable for dealers if it hits the streets.

Brooks estimated that the 16,000 plants seized so far this season would be worth between $30 million and $70 million, putting marijuana in the top echelon of county crops.

According to the current crop report, $70 million would rank after $220 million for top-valued strawberries, $201 million for lemons, $139 million for nursery stock and $113 for celery, according to Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Alan Laird.

"It actually has more value than avocados and is right in there with Valencia oranges," he said.

The single largest eradication of Ventura County marijuana farms occurred during the summer and fall of 1996, when authorities uprooted 23,000 plants. With long, warm days and ample water in the forest, Ritchie said this could also be a record year for seizures.

Last week, law enforcement officials netted 5,000 plants over a two-day period after finding a farm in the Tule Creek area. Like Tuesday's raid, authorities found evidence of sophisticated irrigation systems diverting water from creeks.

Authorities plan to fingerprint some of the items seized during those raids and hope that evidence will lead them to growers as well as the drug dealers they suspect are employing them.

"We hope there are none we have missed," Ritchie said of the back-country pot farms. "We really put a lot of effort into it."

Los Angeles Times Articles