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October 4, 2012

Delay in clearing pot garden criticized

After law enforcement busted a suspected illegal marijuana grow this week on Coffee Street, just 1,000 feet from a middle school, some residents were left to wonder: What took so long? And why was the process so difficult?

After law enforcement busted a suspected illegal marijuana grow this week on Coffee Street, just 1,000 feet from a middle school, some residents were left to wonder: What took so long? And why was the process so difficult?

That question lingers on the mind of Jamie, 40, a mother of a high school-age daughter.

Jamie, who requested that her last name not be used out of fear of retaliation by drug cartels, lives with her family less than a mile from the house where the marijuana growing operation was conducted.

Located near Pioneer Elementary School on one side and Weaver Middle School, the Coffee Street house yielded more than 300 marijuana plants and 1,000 pounds of dried marijuana.

Jamie said she began noticing the distinct odor at the beginning of summer, especially when temperatures spiked. Jamie also noticed many cars driving in and out of the neighbor's home.

She saw the people who lived at the home harvest marijuana in the evenings, a process that continued at all hours of the day.

The most disturbing part, she said, was seeing children of all ages walk by the home every day. "There's too many neighborhood kids," Jamie said, adding that the makeshift greenhouses were visible through the broken down fences.

Jamie's husband called Merced police and visited the station in person. Both times, Jamie said, he was told, "we don't have the resources to go after everyone with grow houses."

Lawrence Shimrado, 47, experienced the same difficulties when he reported the Coffee Street operation to authorities.

Shimrado said he continued calling Merced police until Tuesday, the morning of the raid. "I kept calling four to five times a week," he said. "I was told they can't do anything about it because the law passed for medical marijuana."

Lt. Tom Trindad said the significantly reduced police force, from 111 six years ago to 84 now, has impacted the department's ability to respond as quickly as some would like.

Trindad said the department's top priority remains violent crimes.

"Just because we have low resources doesn't mean we won't address a problem," Trindad said. "But it's not black or white. People are just going to have to be patient with us."

Frustrated, Jamie's husband called the Sheriff's Department and left a message. There was no response, she said. Jamie decided to take matters into her own hands by creating a Facebook account.

Through the power of social media and e-mail, she began to spread the word about the Coffee Street operation. For two months, she contacted local television stations, newspapers, radio stations, school districts and even the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in Sacramento. Jamie said she must have sent at least "100 messages" to various agencies.

But one recent Facebook message from her stood out from the rest.

Jamie posted a scathing message on Merced County Supervisor John Pedrozo's Facebook timeline Sunday night. The post was abruptly removed, but she was personally contacted by his assistant.

Monday morning, the supervisor's staff told Jamie the situation would be taken care of "within 24 hours."

On Tuesday morning, to Jamie's surprise and delight, she drove by just in time to witness Sgt. Rich Howard and his fellow agents with the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas task force clearing out the Coffee Street house.

Pedrozo couldn't be reached by press time Thursday.

Jamie doesn't take all the credit, explaining that many of her neighbors also were sending messages and making phone calls. And while she said they're relieved the marijuana operation is gone, they're also frustrated with the long process.

When Tuesday's raid finally came, Jamie said she thought, "It's about time."

Asked about the concerns of Coffee Street neighbors Tuesday, Sheriff Mark Pazin said tips by the public about potentially illegal marijuana grows are taken seriously. But he said that certain protocols need to be followed before law enforcement can serve a warrant or take action.

Pazin said his department receives hundreds of tips and must prioritize which to tackle first.

"Well, basically, we have to abide by law," Pazin said. "We have to abide by rules and regulations. By the time we get the tips from the public, by the time we put a game plan together ... it just takes time."

To determine which illegal grow houses take top priority, his team considers a number of factors. "It's about size, it's about location. It's about who we believe through our intelligence sources are more dangerous, that they're carrying weapons," Pazin said.

There's also limited resources to consider.

Jamie said she understands the challenges but said it's still no excuse.

"We all know there have been a lot of budget cuts. I do believe that's a part of it," she said. "But if priority is given to those near schools, this one (Coffee Street) should have been gone a long time ago."

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or

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