1 arrested in pot raid near Washington | TheUnion.com

1 arrested in pot raid near Washington

Five men suspected of tending an illegal marijuana plantation bolted from their rustic campsite early Thursday, surprised by Nevada County narcotics agents, and sparked a wild chase through heavy brush and rugged terrain.

One of the men was arrested after he was tackled by a ranger from the U.S. Forest Service, who assisted in the raid, and agents seized nearly 1,800 plants, the Sheriff’s Office reported.

The 16 team members got to the plantation off Relief Hill Road, about 3 miles west of Washington, at about 7:30 a.m. Thursday. Agents initially believed the entire site was deserted and started clearing the plots, which were scattered down the hill, said Sheriff’s Sgt. Bill Smethers.

Team members found the campsite, about 500 yards uphill from the road, almost by fluke after Sgt. Steve Tripp decided to check some of the trails leading up the hill, Salivar said.

“They were too wide to be game trails,” he explained.

As Tripp and other officers bushwhacked up the trail, the garden tenders at the campsite fled “like a herd of deer” down the steep hillside, Smethers said. At least one of the men was armed, he added.

Four of the men were able to evade searchers despite spotting help from a California Highway Patrol helicopter.

“In this terrain, (bringing in) Search and Rescue is just not feasible,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Joe Salivar. “We just don’t have the resources to chase them.”

The fleeing men left behind a clearing littered with personal toiletries and food including toothpaste, a can of mosquito repellent, canned sardines, powdered milk, coffee, Abuelita-brand hot chocolate, salsa, flats of eggs, bags of tortillas – both corn and flour – chile peppers and cinnamon sticks.

A propane cook stove lay next to a frying pan half-filled with food.

Sleeping bags, boots, backpacks and tarps were scattered on the ground; one of the tarps was piled high with trimmed marijuana cola, or buds.

Five large garbage bags bulged with more trimmed and dried cola, each weighing about 20 to 25 pounds.

The men also abandoned a notebook with scrawled grocery lists and a detailed drawing of Juan Malverde, also known as Jesus Malverde, the so-called patron saint of drug traffickers, and a pamphlet venerating Santa Muerte, a religious skeletal figure also associated with drug traffickers and increasingly popular in Mexico and among Mexican immigrants in the United States.

The plantation was first spotted by Forest Service personnel during an overflight in an area where marijuana had been cultivated before, Salivar said.

Pot farms in heavily forested areas can be tough to see unless trees have been significantly cut back, Salivar said.

“This year, we are getting quite a few grows,” he added.

Most of the plants had been “topped,” with the stalks, still holding some buds, left in the ground.

Although most of the garden had been harvested, 1,786 marijuana plants were recovered. Team members found one area nearby where processed plants were hanging to dry.

“It usually takes about seven to 10 days for the plants to dry out, so they had been cutting for the last couple of weeks,” Smethers said.

“It did look like they were in a big rush,” he added, speculating the growers had been spooked by the increased helicopter surveillance in the area and had decided to move their processing area and campsite.

The plantation off the narrow, rutted dirt road near the old Relief Hill mine and townsite consisted of several areas that had been clear-cut and terraced along a canyon leading down to a creek. Growers had dammed up the creek to form a series of pools from which they diverted water for the plants.

They also had dug a series of 3-foot to 4-foot-deep foxholes along a trail, possibly to avoid detection, Smethers said.

“This is the most fortified grow we’ve seen so far,” he said.

Most growers are armed in some fashion, Salivar said. While violent confrontations remain rare, law enforcement throughout the state are seeing more military-type tactics.

The man arrested Thursday was identified as Mauro Ventura Gonzalez, 24, of Acapulco, Mexico.

Gonzalez was booked on felony cultivation charges and misdemeanor resisting arrest. An immigration hold will be placed, with no bail.

“He said he had been picked up (to work) a week ago,” Salivar said. “He didn’t know where he was, other than in California.”

Many garden tenders from Mexican operations are day laborers who have been picked up from a street corner to work for five or six months, Salivar said.

“Sometimes they don’t even know where they are, not even what state, much less what area,” he said.

Thursday’s raid comes in the wake of a multi-agency operation that destroyed more than 20,000 marijuana plants at three cultivation sites near Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, less than 5 miles northeast of the site of Thursday’s raid.

All three of those sites had sleeping and living areas set up and were believed to operated by Mexican nationals, but no workers were found there.

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail lkellar@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4229.

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