Proliferation of pot

Sheriff’s deputies bust several high-volume marijuana farms

Last month, deputies found this dried marijuana and money stashed in a toilet in a residence off Helltown Road in Butte Creek Canyon.

Last month, deputies found this dried marijuana and money stashed in a toilet in a residence off Helltown Road in Butte Creek Canyon.

Photo courtesy of Butte County Sheriff’s Office

Harvest time in Butte County is winding down, and the Butte County sheriff’s Special Enforcement Unit had a fruitful October, uprooting 4,056 female marijuana plants and gathering 6,654 pounds of processed marijuana. It also arrested 10 people—alleged growers, their helpers and a pot hauler.

Various weapons, other drugs and 19 adult dogs and 19 puppies were also confiscated.

“There is not necessarily more being grown,” said sheriff’s Detective Doug Patterson. “We’re just really kicking ass. Last year a lot of our time was taken up policing the dispensaries,” he said, referring to a sting operation that effectively closed down the eight operating dispensaries in the county.

The last, North Valley Holistic Health, shut its doors two weeks ago. The county recently made permanent its temporary ban on such places of distribution.

Patterson said local law enforcement is working with federal officials, who began kicking up their war on the state’s marijuana industry earlier this summer.

“We are dealing with the biggest and the baddest players,” Patterson explained. “They have not had the attention on them they should have had.”

The county uses two helicopters for foothill flyovers to look for gardens in large back yards or in wilderness areas. He said they also get tips from “pissed-off neighbors.”

This summer the county Board of Supervisors adopted an ordinance addressing the growing of medical marijuana as prescribed by an interpretation of the 15-year-old Proposition 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. Many in the growing community saw the ordinance as too restrictive, and a local group organized a successful referendum. That ordinance will now be put to a vote of the people in June.

“They are using Prop. 215 [as a defense], but it’s blatantly out of control,” Patterson said. “People are getting tired of it. They see these people who don’t work sitting around with thousands of dollars, new cars and partying, and they are tired of it.”

A common practice employed by growers is to post a collection of medical-marijuana patients’ recommendations at the grow site to validate the size of the garden.

In such cases, the original recommendation holder is contacted, Patterson said.

“And they’ll say something like, ‘What? Where is it? I gave it to somebody in Marysville.’ You can make the scripts on your computer, they are so generic. And some come from previous years with the dates whited-out and new dates forged on them,” he said.

Some of the doctors are less than scrupulous, he continued, offering patients “superscripts” for $250, which allegedly allow the holder to grow up to 60 plants.

“As it is, doctors can only make dosage recommendations that a patient can use in a week and up to a year,” he said. “An ounce a week translates to three pounds in a year.”

Photo courtesy of Butte County Sheriff’s Office

What follows is a chronological rundown of the major October busts made by the Special Enforcement Unit and based on their press releases.

In the early morning hours of Oct. 4, the unit working with the Butte County Inter-Agency Narcotics Task Force served one search warrant in the 2600 block of Bald Rock Road in the foothill community of Berry Creek and a second in the 4100 block of Keefer Road in north Chico.

The warrants were the result of an investigation that took several months; seven suspects were arrested. The Berry Creek search yielded 76 “extremely large flowering” marijuana plants, a trimming machine, $15,000 in cash, one firearm and psilocybin mushrooms. Agents arrested two men from Mexico, one from Georgia, another from Florida and one from Berry Creek.

The property owner was a man named David Najera, who was also allegedly growing pot at a rental property on Keefer Road. A search warrant was served there, and more marijuana was located. Najera was arrested.

Two days later, again in the early morning, the unit, working with U.S. Forest Service agents, raided a garden in the Big Bar area of Feather River Canyon, where they found 25 pounds of processed pot and 3,328 female plants, which were pulled. There was a camp by the garden that included a kitchen area, a sleeping area, a stove, propane tanks, pots and pans, canned foods, fertilizer and pesticide, No one was arrested on this raid.

That same day the unit issued a follow-up search warrant to another residence in Berry Creek, this one on Simmons Road.

This time, deputies found the house abandoned, and according to the press release, “clothing strewn around the bedrooms, food still in the oven, and the home in general disarray.”

No one was located on the grounds, but 81 female plants were found, as was 94 pounds of processed pot, an indoor growing room and a 9mm handgun.

According to the press release, “Deputies believe this home, as with the Berry Creek and Keefer Road homes, was being used to cultivate marijuana for the purposes of sales under the disguise of Proposition 215. Najera is currently still in the Butte County Jail with bail set at $1,000,000.”

Six days later the unit served a warrant on Rocky Top Road in Cherokee and was “spotted by several Hispanic male adults who fled on foot into thick underbrush.”

The men had been trimming 91 female marijuana plants before they disappeared. The deputies located 900 pounds of processed pot and a loaded 12-gauge shotgun.

The press release for this raid read: “The persons responsible for the marijuana garden were attempting to legitimize their illegal operation by using Proposition 215 as a disguise.”

Later that night, at about 8 o’clock, Deputies Joel Malinowski and Charlie Comer conducted a traffic stop in Paradise on a GMC Yukon towing a large trailer along the Skyway. Its rearview mirrors were not large enough to accommodate the trailer.

After smelling marijuana in the trailer, agents questioned the driver, 21-year-old Nadeem Khan of Foster City. Khan had purchased the trailer that day with cash and was transporting 1,966 pounds of processed marijuana loaded into 189 Home Depot cardboard boxes and headed from a grow site in Helltown to a home in Paradise. The marijuana was grown for a San Jose dispensary called the Purple Lotus.

Kahn was arrested on a felony count of transporting marijuana.

And two days after the that, the unit, this time with assistance from BINTF, the Plumas and Yuba County sheriff’s offices and agents from Fish and Game, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Butte County Probation, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration served four search warrants on Helltown Road in Butte Creek Canyon.

Agents found several people working on plants, but only one, a man from Soledad, was arrested, on a charge of possession of cocaine. Officers found 10 growing sites over four parcels and determined it was being operated by a Bay Area marijuana storefront and was the source of the trailer load found in Paradise and headed to San Jose. Another 2,120 pounds of processed pot and 451 plants were located at the site.

The press release from the Sheriff’s Office had a familiar ring: “The people responsible for the marijuana grow sites attempted to hide their illegitimacy by posting Proposition 215 medical marijuana recommendations at each grow site. Deputies were able to show that the marijuana gardens were not as they appeared but actually a commercial operation hiding under the disguise of Proposition 215 for the purpose of sales.”

A few days after that the unit served a warrant in Oroville and found 1,505 pounds of processed marijuana and 209 plants. They also found in backyard pens 19 adult dogs and 19 puppies and two dozen chickens and roosters. The property owners were believed to be operating a puppy mill and raising roosters for fighting.

Five people were interviewed and two—Eldred Varnado of Oroville and Phillip Schamburg of Sacramento—were arrested on marijuana charges.

Patterson said these “massive plantations” are growing marijuana to ship it out of state.

“We’ve been working with the feds getting some financial help,” he said. “The search warrants we do on our own, but if we get the first notion of interstate trafficking, we pitch it to the feds. Then [the accused] have to deal with federal law enforcement rather than the county. And that helps with some of our court costs.

“It’s kind of crazy; there are shipments of weed going out year round, 80 percent leaves the area or they’ll hold onto it here until mid-summer when the price goes up and then sell it.”