Sheriff’s Department: Merced deputy bitten by dog, 2 arrested during $1 million Stevinson pot bust

rparsons@mercedsunstar.comApril 20, 2014 

Two people were arrested Friday in connection with an estimated $1 million indoor marijuana growing operation in Stevinson, the Merced County Sheriff’s Department reported.

Homeowner David Vierra, 63, of Hilmar, and Mark Gibbs, 42, were taken into custody Friday after deputies found more than 850 “high-quality” marijuana plants in several buildings on a 36-acre parcel of land owned by Vierra in the 3100 block of Nelander Avenue in Stevinson, the Sheriff’s Department said.

Deputy Jose Silva suffered a minor dog bite on his leg during the search of the property, the Sheriff’s Department said. The dog, a pit bull, was said to have a pet-ownership microchip and was believed to have been adopted from the Bay Area. The dog was turned over to Merced County Animal Control, Deputy Ray Framstad said.

Vierra was arrested on suspicion of marijuana cultivation, utilities theft and conspiracy. Gibbs was booked on suspicion of marijuana cultivation, deputies said.

Detectives believe the growing operation was connected to an “organized crime” cultivation group with connections in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston, Framstad said. The pot was for not medicinal purposes, he added.

Deputies said they have evidence that Vierra knew of the large number of marijuana plants and the utilities theft on his property, Framstad said. He added that Vierra “has a history” of renting to marijuana cultivators.

On the property, deputies found four main growing areas, including several rooms in the house with more than a dozen marijuana plants, each over 6 feet tall. Deputies seized more than 450 clone plants, and detectives found dozens of growing lights and ballasts on 12-hour and 24-hour timers, according to Framstad.

Framstad said deputies found at least $4,000 worth of chemicals and fertilizer, including two 55-gallon drums of commercial-grade fertilizer, along with other growing-related chemicals.

“There was also a huge panel that had been diverting a large amount of power – utilities theft – to power the indoor operation,” Framstad said.

Detectives believe the property was organized to harvest marijuana at least four times per year.

Framstad said Friday’s bust was a reminder to marijuana cultivators that deputies are taking a “zero tolerance” approach to all commercial growing operations. Framstad said the bust was also a warning for recreational users about the potential legal troubles facing marijuana possession and sales, especially around April 20, or “4/20,” a day frequently celebrated in “the cannabis culture.”

“Marijuana use is a lot more mainstream; it seems to be more acceptable now for people,” Framstad said. “But these kinds of grows are not only illegal, they attract a criminal element, organized crime and cartels to our county, and that is the dangerous part.”

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

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