Merced County deputies seize $1.6 million in pot from hidden room in home

rparsons@mercedsunstar.comMarch 14, 2014 

— Merced County sheriff’s detectives seized more than $1.6 million in marijuana Friday from a secret room inside a rural home converted into a “full-scale clandestine marijuana laboratory.”

There were no medical marijuana recommendations found when deputies raided the home in the 5300 block of N. Highway 59 in Merced County. The man arrested at the home is suspected of having ties to a drug-trafficking cartel, Detective Clint Landrum said.

Deputies arrested a man with a California driver’s license registered to Mario Alvarez, 35, but investigators do not believe that is his true name. Investigators described the man as “uncooperative.”

“He had several identifications on him,” Landrum said. “We’ll continuing looking into his identity.”

While deputies were interviewing the suspect, he pulled out a cellular phone and smashed it on the ground, Landrum said. “We found other cellphones around the house as well,” the detective noted.

Deputies seized 405 plants and about 200 pounds of clipped marijuana buds in plastic bags, Deputy Ray Framstad reported, with a total estimated street value of more than $1.6 million.

Also confiscated were 60 small clone plants that would have produced about half a pound of marijuana, Framstad estimated. The cash value of the clones was not included in the Sheriff’s Department’s monetary estimate.

Investigators said the room had been renovated into a high-tech greenhouse concealed behind constructed walls accessible only through a small trapdoor in the back of a closet. Within the hidden indoor garden, deputies found a bathroom that had been converted into a clone-producing “laboratory.”

“This is not something you ever see with medicinal growers,” Framstad said. “This is all a commercial operation.”

Detectives said the growers had “a commercial-grade (electrical) bypass” to steal electricity for the plants. The grow room walls were covered with “hydroponic insulation” and more than a dozen grow lamps.

It was the ventilation system that set apart the grow from others the deputies have seen this year, they said.

“The ventilation is highly sophisticated, which helped conceal this,” Landrum said. “With this much (marijuana), the odor is usually very strong, but here it was much weaker because the ventilation system worked so well.”

Framstad said marijuana grows like the one found Friday create fire dangers and are potential targets for home-invasion robberies.

“We’re not here to debate medical marijuana users; we’re here to get grows like this: commercial growers,” Framstad said. “If it’s legal, we’re not going to take anybody’s medicine, but if they’re growing commercially, stealing large amounts of power, like these guys were, then it’s a serious problem.”

Staff writer Rob Parsons can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or rparsons@mercedsunstar.com.

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