Nipped at the bud

County sheriffs bust massive marijuana garden in Plumas National Forest

Officers from the Butte County Sheriff’s Office eradicated 16,272 young marijuana plants from this illegal garden in the Plumas National Forest.

Officers from the Butte County Sheriff’s Office eradicated 16,272 young marijuana plants from this illegal garden in the Plumas National Forest.

PHOTO COurtesy of Butte County Sheriff’s Office

The season for large-scale marijuana-garden busts got under way June 6 as Butte County sheriff’s deputies raided an outdoor, 16,272-plant operation in the Plumas National Forest.

With one plane and two helicopters at its disposal, the Butte County Sheriff’s Special Enforcement Unit spotted the garden in the Mountain House area northeast of Lake Oroville during aerial surveillance. The site was far-removed from major highways, but deputies were provided access to the garden via a U.S. Forest Service road.

“Whenever we have a marijuana grow on Forest Service land, we work in conjunction with them,” said Sgt. Steve Collins during a phone interview. Since it’s early in the growing season, the plants were seized prior to reaching maturity, he said.

Though the size of the grow suggests multiple suspects were involved, deputies—working with the Forest Service and SWAT teams from Butte and Yuba counties, as well as the Chico Police Department—made just one arrest during the raid. Officers reportedly encountered 41-year-old Antonio Gomez-Cruz, of the Central Valley community of Soltana, in the kitchen area of the marijuana garden’s campsite, where he had a “very brief conversation” with officers before reportedly making a run for it.

“One of the officers announced that he had a canine, told the guy to stop, and he didn’t,” Collins said, adding that the police dog quickly put an end to the chase and that “if we didn’t have the canine, we very well may not have apprehended [Gomez-Cruz].”

Officers were also confronted with the typical mess associated with the makeshift campsites of marijuana growers living on-site to tend to their gardens, Collins said.

“They had a lot of trash,” he said. “Some of it was in trash bags. Some of it was strewn out on the ground. They had bags of fertilizer stashed in various places. … They had trash shoved up into the bushes, and holes they’d dug for burying it.”

Even with help from the Forest Service and the SWAT teams, the task of seizing and bundling the marijuana plants following the bust took two days. Thought Mexican cartels are often responsible for such large-scale gardens (the Special Enforcement Unit shuts down as many as 25 in a year), Collins said the ongoing investigation has yet to determine whether this particular grow was run by such an organization. On-site evidence suggested the operation was “similar to other marijuana grow we’ve busted, but we don’t have any definitive proof [that a Mexican cartel was involved],” he said.

The number of large-scale marijuana gardens that sheriff’s deputies encounter fluctuates from year to year, Collins said. He anticipates this season will be busier than last year’s, based on “what we’ve seen already.”

“Last year, we had very few [marijuana-garden busts]. I don’t know what sizes we’ll see, but I believe we’ll see more gardens this year compared to last year.”

The Special Enforcement Unit’s aerial surveys, while an effective means for locating rural marijuana gardens, are also helpful in spotting grows in residential settings. In fact, an aerial operation in early May led to the June 11 bust of a 710-plant garden on Dottie Lane in Paradise, according to a Butte County Sheriff’s Office press release.

In what the sheriff’s office described as “a scene very similar to those located in illegal cartel-style marijuana grows in our mountains,” the marijuana was planted in between rows of corn. Two Mexican nationals, Francisco Santiago-Pedro and Demetrio Marcial-Matias, were arrested in that case.

Meanwhile, Gomez-Cruz was arraigned in Butte County Superior Court on June 11, facing felony charges of marijuana cultivation and possession of marijuana for sale, and a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest. His bail was set at $103,000.