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Ventura County

Agents Seize Pot Crops

Ojai: The annual sweep in Los Padres National Forest has netted 7,000 marijuana plants so far. Six suspects have been arrested.

September 26, 2002|HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The war on drugs in Ventura County was on full display Wednesday, replete with guns, thumping helicopters and sweaty, bug-bitten troops in camouflage scouring the rugged hillsides for the enemy.

As they have done each fall for the last three decades, county and federal agents this week descended on another small patch of the giant Los Padres National Forest north of Ojai, seizing piles of the annual marijuana harvest.

By late Wednesday, after months of surveillance and several smaller raids, machete-wielding deputies had chopped down about 7,000 mature marijuana plants and were anticipating a total of more than 10,000 by Friday.

In addition, authorities arrested six undocumented residents from Mexico who were allegedly attempting to flee the plantations. "There's marijuana in all of the these canyons, as far as the eye can see," said sheriff's pilot David Nadon as he directed a helicopter into a narrow mountain channel called Wheeler Gorge.

This year's largest eradication effort focused on the rock-and-brush-covered pass off California 33, about 15 miles north of Ojai.

Towering trees and dense chaparral make excellent cover for pot farming, authorities say, and black plastic piping, which can be purchased in rolls of 1,000 feet, stretches easily to nearby creeks to nourish plants.

"Each and every year, the growers come back ... to the forest," said Eric Nishimoto, a spokesman with the Ventura County Sheriff's Department. "There's not too many places that offer these conditions."

The forest, which covers about 860 square miles of the county's back country, has long been a popular place for Mexican drug cartels to plant high-grade sensimia, a potent pot plant that can be worth more than $3,000 a pound on the street.

The total value of this month's haul will exceed several million dollars, assuring that Ventura County will remain on the short list of the state's leading dope-growing regions, which include Humboldt and Mendocino counties, authorities said.

Plans for the eradication effort started in early summer when Forest Service pilots and later sheriff's chopper pilots began a series of day and nighttime flyovers in the north county.

Trained narcotics experts can sometimes spot the bright green stalks hidden among the dense brush, even from altitudes of 500 feet. But the best tools for finding the farms are still night vision goggles and infrared sensors, which can detect body heat during low passes by a helicopter.

The joint federal-county team struck first on Sept. 3 in an area called Cherry Creek. Agents uprooted nearly 4,000 plants, Nishimoto said.

Four smaller plantations totaling about 500 plants were discovered Sept. 18 and 21 in the Sespe Gorge area west of California 33. On Sunday, two Los Angeles men were arrested and 85 plants seized near Mutah Creek.

Gilbert Ramirez, 25, and Bernardo Bueno, 46, were being held at Ventura County Jail on suspicion of marijuana cultivation. Because they are undocumented, there is no bail, officials said.

On Tuesday, after additional surveillance revealed at least four more pot plantations lining a two-mile stretch of Upper Matilija Creek, a team of deputies fanned out and blocked every dirt entry to the gorge.

At 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, deputies arrested two men and a juvenile boy, all from Mira Loma, as the group emerged from the forest. A fourth man from Ventura County was arrested nearby.

The three who were found on the street gave deputies little information, other than to say they were hired for a few hundred dollars to tend to the plants.

"I'm absolutely elated we found people ... because the locations are so far off the beaten path and very hard to sneak up on," said Ray Gould, a patrol captain with the Forest Service.

Authorities believe the men were caring for up to 1,000 plants at various sites scattered along the gorge. At campsites, deputies found a shotgun, a pistol and piles of garbage, as well as pesticides, detergents and poisons used to enhance plant growth.

The agents returned to the gorge Wednesday to continue uprooting and cutting down plants.

At least 2,000 more plants were bundled into large bricks and flown to a small landing area, where they were lowered onto a flatbed truck.

Most of the pot will be taken to a county jail facility, where deputies will bury the dead plants. Deputies may remain in the gorge for several more days, removing more pot plants and looking for more suspects, authorities said.

"During the cultivation season, we are effective because we can take a little piece of their pie away," said Sgt. Bob Garcia, who headed the operation. "We do what we can do."

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