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7,000-Plant Pot Farm Near Ojai Raided After Growers Take Shots at Hunter

September 17, 2003|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Four days after marijuana growers shot at a hunter in the Ventura County backcountry, a team of narcotics officers swept into a rugged mountain canyon Tuesday and seized at least 7,000 mature plants.

It was the fourth -- and largest -- pot farm destroyed by county law enforcement in the past month and brings the total number of marijuana plants cut down this season to more than 15,960. Those plants would be worth as much as $48 million on the street, authorities said, making marijuana the county's sixth-most valuable cash crop, directly behind avocados and celery.

Marijuana cultivation in the brush-covered wilderness that covers most of Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties has been a chronic problem over the past decade but has taken a dangerous turn this season.

Last weekend, a hunter walking near a marijuana grove in Los Padres National Forest north of Ojai was fired upon by three men wielding automatic weapons. Authorities said the hunter encountered two more armed men as he left the area.

Ventura County narcotics, K-9 and SWAT team officers joined by U.S. Forest Service agents dropped into the grove, about 13 miles north of Ojai, by helicopter early Tuesday morning and found a hastily abandoned encampment along Bear Creek.

Sheriff's spokesman Eric Nishimoto said it appeared the pot growers fled shortly before the raid, leaving behind a pair of boots and chicken frying in a skillet.

The marijuana plants were chopped down, airlifted and burned. No suspects were apprehended, and county and federal officials said the search would continue into this morning.

In a separate raid Tuesday, San Luis Obispo County sheriff's deputies were fired upon after hiking through rough terrain into a clearing thick with marijuana plants. At least five men fled through the brush, but officers caught the suspected shooter, said Sgt. Pete Hodgkin.

The plants were taken out of the forest by helicopter. Nobody was injured in the incident, which took place about five miles from Lopez Lake outside the city of Arroyo Grande, Hodgkin said.

Armed attacks by marijuana growers are an ominous new development, said Kathy Good, a Forest Service spokeswoman based at Los Padres National Forest headquarters in Goleta.

"We know they're not little hobbits out there," she said. "I'm concerned for the safety of the public and of Forest Service employees."

Good said the problem of illicit marijuana cultivation appears to be on the rise.

Last year, some 47,000 marijuana plants and 20 large-scale "gardens" were destroyed in Los Padres. "I'm sure we'll break that record this summer," Good said.

Times staff writer Steve Chawkins contributed to this report.

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