Deanne Fitzmaurice/California WatchPatrick Foy, a warden with the Department of Fish and Game, looks for signs of illegal growers on wooded land in Sacramento.
A little-spoken-of war is taking place behind California’s fences and property lines – trespassing marijuana growers are setting booby traps, resorting to violence and vandalism, and spoiling the land by stealing water and spraying dangerous chemicals that leach into streams.
As the federal government focuses on stopping illegal marijuana crops in public parklands and U.S. forests, local sheriffs and state drug enforcement officials face the persistent and potentially dangerous problem of pot growers commandeering private land for their crops.
“They’re dangerous people, but we’re in a situation, and I think they’re very much aware of this, where we’d be shooting each other,” said Rob Brown, a supervisor in rural Lake County. “They're armed more for the idea of protecting their families at home than they are for themselves. That's not a theory or opinion; that's an absolute fact.”
While some land owners fear violence, others face environmental havoc.
Last year, the Mendocino County grand jury found [PDF] that trespassing growers had cut down trees, destroyed vegetation, diverted streams and littered the landscape with animal carcasses, garbage, human waste, herbicides and animal poisons. The report found toxic compounds used as fertilizer and pesticides were being mixed in dammed stream beds, and “toxins have devastated bird and aquatic life and pose a threat to human habitat,” the report stated.
Anyone who wants physical proof of the potential violence can visit Brown’s office at the local courthouse.
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There, Brown keeps a souvenir booby trap on display that he removed from his property. It looks like a giant wooden flyswatter with about 20 to 30 punji sticks – sharpened sticks frequently encountered during the Vietnam War – pressed through it. He found it attached to a heavy block and trip wire. It was designed to swing out, the weight of the block adding momentum and force, so that the sharpened sticks would strike the victim’s face.
In July 2008, Brown discovered about 1,000 young marijuana plants on his 300-acre property where he grazed a herd of about 80 bison.
Two days after he’d called the sheriff’s department about the find, a narcotics team, along with members from the state’s Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, assisted in the cleanup. While flying over Brown’s property in a helicopter, they discovered many more marijuana gardens planted throughout the area.
In total, nearly one-third of Brown’s land was covered with the crop. The teams eradicated nearly 5,000 plants that day. A couple of days later, Brown discovered about 2,500 more.
Brown, a bail bondsman as well as county supervisor, acted on his instinct to go after whoever planted the illegal crop.
“I actually sat at that grow for three days, off and on, waiting for whoever it was that was going to tend them to come back, so I could catch them,” Brown said. “I had my rifle, so I wasn’t alone.”
After the eradication of the gardens, someone cut the border fences, which allowed some of Brown’s bison to escape the property. In two separate incidents, a passing vehicle struck a bison that had wandered out of an opening in the fence and onto the road. As the owner of the bison, Brown was liable for damages to the vehicles involved in the accidents.
“I had to buy two new cars,” said Brown, who suspects the vandalism was retribution from the growers for destroying their crop, estimated to be worth $15 million – a conservative number assuming that each plant would yield about one pound of usable drug at an average rate of $2,000 per pound.
Several bison were shot and injured, and others were constantly harassed. Before these incidents began, the bison could be fed by hand. Afterward, they became wild and unpredictable, sometimes crashing through the fences on their own. Brown decided the potential liability was too much. He eventually had to have the entire herd slaughtered.
Brown has since opened his land to law enforcement for the purposes of training field agents. The officers and deputies come during growing season and use the land to practice tracking techniques and eradication methods. Brown hasn’t found any evidence of trespassers since he allowed the training operations on his property.
Budget cuts hinder law enforcement
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, more than 10.3 million marijuana plants were eradicated or seized in the United States under the DEA’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program in 2009. Out of that number, more than 7.5 million plants were seized in California alone.
Lake, Tulare, Shasta, Los Angeles and Mendocino counties were the highest-producing areas of outdoor marijuana cultivation in California in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. These five counties account for 35 percent of outdoor eradications in California.
But despite the eradication efforts, some county law enforcement officials complain that budget cuts are hampering their efforts, just as the illegal grows are burgeoning.
“Painful cuts have been and will continue to be made in all areas,” said Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman had to cut roughly 10 percent of his budget in 2010. Staffing cuts over the years have reduced his department to 42 deputies, down from about 52 in the mid-1980s. His office now has the same number of deputies that it had in 1972, when President Nixon was in the White House.
Allman estimates that 30 percent of his department’s resources and staffing are dedicated to marijuana issues during the growing months.
“Locating marijuana in Mendocino County is not our problem,” Allman said. “We’ll take all the tips possible. However, I hope the citizens understand that we can’t investigate every marijuana tip that we get … especially this time of year.”
He said the department would usually only pursue gardens that have 100 plants or more, unless there is a public safety or environmental concern.
Some property owners knowingly rent their land to illegal marijuana growers, and when confronted by law enforcement, claim ignorance. When asked if property owners are renting to growers, Capt. Kurt Smallcomb with the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department, said it happens “very often.”
Landowners want growers targeted
Some landowners have attempted to remove the marijuana gardens themselves, an action that is unanimously discouraged by law enforcement.
Santa Rosa resident and retired teacher Carol Vellutini was tending her 300-acre piece of land in Sonoma County when she noticed an unusual trail leading up the hill. Vellutini, knowing the reputation of the area, was already certain of what she would find there.
She and a friend hiked for nearly an hour until they stumbled upon drip lines. Following the lines, they found a grow site. There was a nursery of sorts, with many marijuana seedlings growing out of starter cups, and a large adult crop with plants more than 6 feet tall.
Furious, she rushed forward and began yanking the plants. She collected garbage, pesticides and fertilizer that she found at the scene, and she plans to bring what she found to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to show them.
Vellutini said she has had mixed results with Sonoma County law enforcement. Since she discovered the garden in 2005, sheriff’s deputies, along with Department of Justice personnel, do annual flyovers and attempt to seize any plants they see.
But Vellutini said she had no help in permanently removing the growers from her property or removing the garbage and contaminants left behind.
“They fly over every year and pull the plants when they see them,” she said. “But they never go in to find the growers, arrest them, make them leave, or prevent them from coming back. Every year they come back, and you have the same trash and pollution and damage. I’ve had it.”
Michelle Gregory, a representative with the Department of Justice, explained that the role of the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting is focused on eradication of the plants. If growers are found during the efforts, they will be arrested. But otherwise, local police and sheriff’s department officials have responsibility for day-to-day enforcement.
Frustration with official responses
In 2009, the growers cut an acre of bay and oak trees on Vellutini’s land.
“When they cut my trees,” Vellutini said, “that’s when I lost it.” But she said the sheriff’s department only suggested fencing her 300-acre property and installing a security camera. They took no further action, she said.
Vellutini was furious. She called a sergeant she had dealt with previously at the department and said, “Sergeant, the men are still on my property. I'm taking my men with my guns in, and if anyone threatens us or raises a gun, we will take appropriate actions.”
She said she never heard back from the sergeant.
So the 68-year-old great-grandmother gathered a posse of friends, all armed, and they worked their way to the grow site. The growers weren’t there, but they left behind plenty of evidence. Dozens of batteries discarded in the dirt, sleeping bags, eating utensils, makeshift tents and toilets, tortillas, tins of tuna, soda cans, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer and hundreds of yards of coiled drip line for irrigation.
Vellutini’s crew slashed the sleeping bags, dumped the food and collected dozens of bags of trash. After some extensive searching, they found hundreds of marijuana seedlings hidden under a canopy of manzanita trees.
“At my age, I don't want to keep doing this. I just want the men out. I just want them gone. I don't want them back,” Vellutini said.
Capt. Matt McCaffrey of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said, “The short of it is that Ms. Vellutini didn’t want to wait.”
“Like all calls for service, these get prioritized as to when we can respond to them,” McCaffrey said. “Depending on the situation and risk factors, we might respond immediately or put it on a list of locations to check when we have a two-day eradication operation scheduled with CAMP or another law enforcement agency.”
In Cazadero, in western Sonoma County, Dennis O’Leary discovered that a spring on his 42-acre property was diverted to supply water to a marijuana grow that seemed to cross over three property lines. His water in the area comes from a natural spring. Last winter, the water stopped flowing. As he approached the grow site, somebody shot at him.
“It was probably just a warning shot,” O’Leary said.
O’Leary decided that the best thing to do was to alert the sheriff’s department. He drove to the Guerneville substation and spoke to a deputy, who said that there was nobody available to take a statement. Because it was a holiday weekend, the deputy said O’Leary would have to wait until Tuesday before he could report it.
“The deputy kind of blew me off,” O’Leary said. Later, he said a deputy told him that there was nothing to do except assign a case number to it. The case was labeled a “disturbance.”
“If you called 911 when the shot was fired,” O’Leary recalled the deputy saying, “we probably could have helped you out.”
Because of the potential violence, many residents and law enforcement officials working in these rural areas have taken precautions. Some interviewed by California Watch wouldn’t give their names.
Lake County Supervisor Brown won’t allow his daughter to roam freely on their property. It was a privilege that she once enjoyed as she rode her pony unrestricted on her father’s land.
O’Leary had planned on gathering a group of individuals to document the grow site, armed only with his camera, and to clean up as much as they could. Under pressure from nearby landowners, including one neighbor who shot off a few bursts from an automatic rifle as a warning to O’Leary, he canceled his expedition and has decided he’s just going to leave the matter alone.
According to property owners interviewed, many landowners in pot country won’t walk their own property without arming themselves.
“Most of the arrests we make of people in these illegal grows do not talk to us. They are told not to,” said Gregory, the Department of Justice spokeswoman. “Those that do often tell us they were brought to the grow site under threats or duress. They say their families are threatened. They won't get paid if a crop isn't harvested.”
Patrick Foy, a warden with the Department of Fish and Game, said his department is concerned about poaching, pollution and habitat destruction. The growers will kill anything, either as food or to prevent it from damaging the crop.
“Every type of wild animal that lives in California has turned up dead at a grow site at one time or another,” Foy said.
Because water is the No. 1 factor for growers when choosing their sites, chemicals used on illegal grow sites eventually end up in creeks and rivers, Foy said. Habitat destruction is apparent as soon as you walk onto one of the grow sites, he said.
Trees and brush get cut away to make room for the crop. Foy said a large section of the land might be flattened, with the trees, branches and vegetation thrown on the ground to create a makeshift wall to conceal the grow site.
Roundup and other herbicides are used to kill competing flora. Water diversion denies areas of vital fluids, destroying fish and wildlife habitats. The area surrounding grow sites, in general, becomes full of dead things where there should be life.
“Fertilizers, pesticides and rodent poisons are the main causes of pollution,” Foy said. “They are used … without regard for their environmental impact. They’re used in such quantities that there really is no way to prevent them from washing off the site into the nearest creek.”
Without regulation, the marijuana crop is passed to the consumer with all the grow-site chemicals included.
Landowner Vellutini said she doesn’t smoke marijuana but is concerned for people who do.
“They don't know what they're smoking,” Vellutini said. “I've seen the stuff that's going on them. That stuff is sprayed with so many herbicides and pesticides. It's awful. And I don't know what effect that's having on a person, but it's got to be something. It's toxic pot.”