400 marijuana plants seized from underground garden in Hilmar

04/04/2014 11:00 PM

04/04/2014 11:08 PM

Merced County investigators seized about 400 marijuana plants Friday from a concealed underground garden beneath a home on an almond ranch.

One man was arrested in connection with the elaborate, hidden grow in the 4300 block of North Griffith Avenue in the Hilmar area.

Victor Arreola Barajas, 40, of Ceres was booked into the Merced County Jail in lieu of $20,000 bail on suspicion of marijuana cultivation and utilities theft. Barajas was arrested in a vehicle near the grow site with more than $5,000 in cash, Deputy Ray Framstad said.

Capt. B.J. Jones estimated the total street value of the high-quality plants seized Friday at about $480,000. The multistage grow was capable of producing more than $1 million in marijuana and had been operating for more than a year at least, Jones said.

Investigators raided the house around 10 a.m. Friday.

Deputies declined to comment on exactly how the underground garden was initially located.

Deputy Chris Sziraki said the grower or growers bypassed an electrical meter and stole thousands of dollars in utilities.

“All these indoor grows that steal power are potential fire hazards,” Sziraki said.

An additional 17 marijuana plants were also inside the house itself, but Sziraki said those plants were likely put there to throw off investigators and further conceal the major underground operation.

“This is very elaborate,” Sziraki said. “It’s one of the most complicated concealment methods you’ll find.”

Investigators said the grow was a commercial operation but that it was too soon to know whether it was connected to any high-level traffickers.

A small hole leading to the black-market garden was concealed outside the home and was only accessible by crawling through on hands and knees to a concrete ledge leading to an 8-foot ladder below.

Beneath the home, growers rigged the 1,200-square-foot potted garden with nearly two dozen grow lamps and ballasts to the stolen power through a complicated series of multicolored electrical cords that also linked circulation fans and large air purifiers used to regulate temperature and mask the marijuana odor, Sziraki explained.

“This is easily $15,000 to $20,000 in equipment alone,” Sziraki said.

There were no medical marijuana recommendations found at the scene, deputies said.

“And you don’t typically find electrical bypasses and utility theft in medical use grows,” Sziraki noted, “or this type of (effort) to mask the odor.”

Friday’s raid was the latest in the Sheriff’s Department’s recent zero-tolerance campaign against suspected commercial marijuana producers. Deputies have investigated and raided numerous homes in recent months in Merced County, targeting any parcel of land with more than 12 plants.

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