MADERA COUNTY – Law enforcement has seen a spike in the number of illegal pot grows in the Valley this year. Blame it on the drought, says Sheriff John Anderson, who believes lack of water may be driving drug cartels out of the forests and into neighborhoods throughout Madera County.
“They can’t grow in the mountains, because there’s not enough water to sustain their operations,” says Anderson.
Before the drought, drug trafficking organizations could typically cultivate from 20,000 to 40,000 marijuana plants in one mountain garden alone, but lack of water has changed that. Now they’re planting their product in subdivisions in the foothills and on the Valley floor in an effort to continue their operation.
As a result, the Sheriff’s Office reports that the number of cultivation sites has nearly doubled since January this year.
Cultivation Sites in 2013 ……………………………………………………… 36
Cultivation sites in 2014 ……………………………………………………… 60
Search warrants in 2013 ……………………………………………………… 44
Search Warrants in 2014 ……………………………………………………… 60
Raymond, O’Neals, Coarsegold, Chowchilla, Fairmead, Oakhurst, Bass Lake, North Fork, Ahawhanee, and Madera Ranchos – all are now hotbeds for marijuana gardens, says the Sheriff.
Growers are either renting homes and/or parcels, or buying acreage for the sole purpose of growing marijuana, where they can tap into water, and in one case were caught stealing it, says the Sheriff’s Office.
They quickly pay Code Enforcement fines, because the amount is merely a drop in the bucket compared to the wealth they amass. They walk away from one property and set up camp on another. Or, in some cases, start planting another crop soon after their gardens have been eradicated.
And it’s not just marijuana, adds Sheriff Anderson. Many of these same growers are also involved in the trafficking of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.
The increased drug activity is leading to an increase in criminal activity, like drive-by shootings, home invasions, robberies and homicides.
“There have been cases when a garden was discovered because our deputies were called out to a shooting,” says Anderson. “Nearly half a dozen homicides have been drug related.”
Some examples given by the Sheriff’s Office include: A shoot-out in Raymond left one man dead after a battle was fought over marijuana plants. A man in Chowchilla was nearly killed over his marijuana grow. Two men died in Chowchilla over a drug deal that went wrong, involving marijuana and methamphetamine. A Santa Cruz man was shot and severely beaten in Coarsegold over marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin. And an Oakhurst man suffered a gunshot wound to his leg. Deputies believe that too was drug related.
Not only is there a significant increase in drug trafficking and criminal activity, Sheriff Anderson says he is seeing more and more cases of potential health risks brought about by these illegal grow sites and the growers themselves. There are numerous cases involving virtually no sanitation.
“And not a single one of these growers live in Madera County,” says the Sheriff. “They are merely using Madera County to grow their product.”
This past month alone, the Sheriff’s Office discovered one garden on the valley floor and two gardens in Coarsegold, where there were glaring cases of health and safety code violations – among them, faulty electrical wiring posing a fire threat, and cesspools of human waste seeping into the ground, putting adjacent homes in these subdivisions at risk.
In Coarsegold, it took deputies more than a day to haul away more than 6,000 pounds of marijuana, and it took Code Enforcement Officers even longer to record the violations.
One garden was found on Quartz Mountain, located halfway between Coarsegold and O’Neals. There, authorities reportedly found marijuana plants five to six feet tall, with trunks between 2 to 3 inches in circumference, growing on a 42-acre parcel of private land. The garden, hidden in dense brush, measured more than 56,000 square feet.
At a second cultivation site, located off Highway 41 in Coarsegold, there were marijuana plants between 5 and 6 feet tall, with trunks similar in size to those found on Quartz Mountain. The entire back side of this property was surrounded by black tarp, camouflaging several plots that in total measured nearly 30,000 square feet.
One location housed a RV that didn’t appear to be hooked up to a septic system.
The second location had a single-wide mobile with an add-on bathroom. Based on the wretched stench of sewage, the Sheriff’s Office says it appeared the waste matter from that toilet was seeping into the ground.
The lot located on the valley floor had living quarters large enough to house as many as six people. Just like all the other plywood huts, it was fully wired with numerous electrical units including a refrigerator, satellite television, a surveillance system, air conditioning unit and lighting, but no plumbing. Outdoor spigots served for washing and bathing. Both gray water and waste water were used to fertilize thousands of marijuana plants and vegetables.
In North Fork, authorities spent nearly five hours hauling away marijuana plants from a grow site that spanned roughly five acres. Again, the property had a plywood hut, complete with basic human needs, and all of them without sanitation.
Another grow site was located in Yosemite Lakes Park and was littered with medical recommendations. Not one of the growers resides in Madera County.
Just last week, a woman in North Fork was caught violating the law for a second time, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Her failure to comply was discovered after deputies responded to her residence, following what was described as “a flood of citizen complaints” about what appeared to illegal drug activity.
The Sheriff’s Office says deputies gave the woman – who maintains a medical marijuana recommendation – a chance to “mend her ways” last year. They admonished her and gave her a copy of Madera County’s marijuana cultivation ordinance.
When deputies arrived this year, they say the first thing they saw was a man fleeing from a garden, sprawling with marijuana plants. She claimed to only know his first name. He was reportedly keeping house in a trailer parked on her property. Again, she was armed with a medical marijuana recommendation, which she acquired in another county, and by now, the Sheriff’s Office says she was fully aware of Madera county’s medical marijuana cultivation laws.
Deputies didn’t give her a second chance to comply. They destroyed her 105 plants, and handed her a citation. Deputies also learned that her husband, Robert Bradley, is wanted in Fresno on a no-bail warrant for narcotics. His whereabouts are unknown. (His picture has been posted on Madera County Sheriff’s Face Book page.)
Numerous medical marijuana recommendation cards – with names and place of residence – have been found posted throughout these gardens. The majority of the card holders are not Madera County residents, says the Sheriff’s Office. Placards stapled to posts bear the names of the growers who actually reside elsewhere in California, or in another state. Sheriff Anderson says the patent abuse is beyond frustrating.
“We had one case, where a grower, who lives in Susanville, some 300 miles to the north, got her recommendation in Tulare County, and she was cultivating marijuana in Madera County. In another case, we had three growers, from Massachusetts, tending to a garden the size of a football field on property near Chowchilla. Their recommendations were signed in Fresno.”
They also reportedly had a sign telling authorities they had immunity. When confronted about the sign, they told authorities it was already there before they moved in.
“We have found numerous plots on one-acre parcels, with anywhere from 5 to 15 different placards,” says the Sheriff. “Madera County has literally become a boomtown for marijuana growers, and a hotbed for illicit drug activity.”
In the last couple years, California has experienced a reduction in drug tasks forces. With that steady statewide depletion, Sheriff Anderson says this has become especially worrisome for Madera County, because the one task force (MADNET) that shoulders the responsibility for monitoring all illegal drug activity throughout the county, may be dismantled by end of this year.
The whole purpose of creating a narcotics task force that deals with an array of illegal drug activity, including heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, was to address the fact that Madera County cannot tackle this problem by itself, says Sheriff Anderson.
“There are simply not enough resources to do it ourselves. We have relied on the California Department of Justice to help us deal with drug activity and the crime it brings, and we were making good progress. Without their support, I am very concerned about the prospect of more drug cartels setting up operations in Madera County. With no additional resources to help us counter this problem, I am very worried that Madera County’s ‘boomtown’ reputation may only get worse.”
In an effort to make people aware of the crisis, Sheriff Anderson has now turned to state leaders, asking them to come to Madera County to see how pervasive the problem has become.
Recently, State Senator Anthony Cannella sent one of his staff members to tour an eradication operation in the foothills of Eastern Madera County to see firsthand the “abuse and appalling conditions created by these growers.”