Pot bust for the ages
Thousands of plants seized from illegal commercial-sized marijuana farm
Even for law enforcement agencies that specialize in busting drug operations, the scale of the marijuana garden recently shut down by Butte County Sheriff’s Office detectives outside of Chico was remarkable.
While serving a search warrant at 10175 Alberton Ave. (a large parcel off River Road) on April 25, the Sheriff’s Office Special Enforcement Unit and the Butte Interagency Narcotics Taskforce busted an “elaborate marijuana-growing operation” in several massive greenhouses, according to a press release.
Detectives “eradicated” 1,467 marijuana plants and found evidence of about 1,000 more that had already been harvested. Also confiscated were 11 pounds of processed marijuana, 3 ounces of hash, .8 ounces of psilocybin (psychedelic mushrooms) and three firearms.
“It’s out of the norm to have this many plants indoors,” said Sheriff Sgt. Stephen Collins during a recent interview. “Granted, it was greenhouse-style growing, but it’s not very often we’ll have a marijuana garden this size.”
Equally impressive are the greenhouses themselves—each is 200 by 80 feet and equipped with six 4-foot ventilation fans and an 80-foot-long cooling system.
“Both agencies were amazed at the size of the commercial greenhouses,” the press release said.
Christopher Byers, the 44-year-old man reportedly leasing the property, was not on-site during the search, Collins said.
“He has been contacted since [the bust],” he said. “He was arrested on other charges—he was arrested for terrorist threats.”
While Collins declined to elaborate on the pending marijuana garden investigation and Byers’ additional charges, Butte County Jail records show Byers was bailed out on April 26.
Collins did note that several other people were on-site during the search and the growers had doctors’ recommendations for medical marijuana under Proposition 215, though there was allegedly evidence of illegal sales.
Interestingly, this isn’t the first time the property at 10175 Alberton Ave.—formerly home to Casa Verde Farms, a USDA-certified organic cucumber and tomato farm—has been the site of a large-scale marijuana bust. According to U.S. District Court documents, previous property owner Kurt Retzer entered a plea agreement in 2008 in which he pled guilty to manufacturing more than 100 marijuana plants and agreed to forfeit the property’s equity—$237,000.
A listed phone number for Casa Verde Farms is no longer in service, and the CN&R could not confirm that the organic vegetable farm is still in business.
As for Byers’ alleged marijuana operation, the sheriff’s office has yet to determine whether he was working alone. “I definitely think it’s a private organization, but we’re not ruling out that it’s tied to a larger operation,” Collins said.
Such large-scale marijuana gardens represent a threat to public safety whether they’re illegal or protected by Prop. 215, Collins said. Because many growers protect their crops with firearms, there’s the risk of somebody inadvertently stumbling onto the property and into a dangerous situation.
“That’s always one of our concerns—that somebody not familiar with the area, maybe going to visit a friend on that same road, could end up pulling into the wrong driveway and the occupants of the property could think it was somebody coming to rip them off.
“We want the public to be safe, whether it’s the person growing marijuana for their medical needs or it’s their neighbor,” Collins said. “The inherent problem with these larger marijuana gardens is the propensity for home invasions, the violence associated with marijuana and the black-market value of that marijuana.”
So, if California followed the lead of Washington and Colorado and legalized the recreational use of marijuana, would there be as much incentive to steal from pot growers?
“I don’t know,” Collins said. “You say legalized, but in what fashion? Is it regulated? If so, can they still create a black market that undercuts the regulated marijuana?
“You still get alcohol thefts from stores, and from what I understand, they’re still making moonshine in the South.”