October 2, 2012

Agents bust pot operation near Merced schools

The hundreds of kids walking down South Coffee Street to school each day can breathe a little easier Tuesday after law enforcement agencies raided a large marijuana-growing operation at a home along their route.

The hundreds of kids walking down South Coffee Street to school each day can breathe a little easier Tuesday after law enforcement agencies raided a large marijuana-growing operation at a home along their route.

The Merced Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force seized more than 300 marijuana plants and 1,000 pounds of dried marijuana at 7 a.m. at 143 S. Coffee St.

The raid came several weeks after neighbors and passers-by complained about the strong smell of marijuana coming from the home, a block away from Weaver Middle School.

Three men were arrested during the raid: Anthony Mounixay, 20, Jonathan Sengphacharh, 20, and Koeut Mek, 55. The three men were being held for investigation of illegal cultivation of marijuana. Officers also found a .22-caliber handgun inside the house.

More than 15 small dogs were at the home. Officials said they would be turned over to animal control and taken to shelters until homes can be found.

The search was part of "Operation Mercury," an ongoing effort to crack down on large-scale marijuana cultivation. Narcotics agents said there are about 600 growing operations in the region, and they get calls every day -- but this one was a priority because if its location.

"The fact that this one was within 1,000 feet of Weaver School elevated it on the list," said Sgt. Rich Howard of the drug task force. "We could even smell it from Golden Valley High School on Childs Avenue."

Agents found five or six growing areas on the property, and Howard said it was the first greenhouse operation busted this year.

Some of the plants were hanging in drying huts, with electric fans to speed the process, when agents raided the operation Tuesday. They said this year's higher-than-usual temperatures have made for ideal growing conditions.

Lawrence Shimrado, 47, who has lived in Merced for 23 years, said he could smell the marijuana when he walked his 12-year-old to school.

"All the neighbors said we have to do something about it," Shimrado said. "I always pass by here, taking my kids to school, and we could smell it. We just had to do something about it."

Fed up, Shimrado said he called police multiple times last week to tip them off.

Shimrado was told nothing could be done because of the Compassionate Use Act, Proposition 215, which allows people to grow marijuana for medicinal use if they obtain the proper paperwork.

"We're getting citizen complaints on a daily basis," said deputy Tom MacKenzie, Merced County sheriff's spokesman. "We understand the public is frustrated and law enforcement is frustrated, as well. We want the public to know we haven't forgotten."

MacKenzie said the evidence from Tuesday's search suggests several other marijuana crops had been successfully harvested and dried at the South Coffee Street location during the summer.

"This is a lot of finished product," said MacKenzie of Tuesday's seizure. "The amount is growing because they feel it's allowed under the Compassionate Use Act -- they're getting bolder."

Merced resident Maria Gonzales, 20, who lives two miles away from the property, said she is glad the operation was busted, though the people who lived there "seemed so normal."

"We knew something was in this house because we saw the covers and the plants and it smelled horrible," Gonzales said.

It was a long process that led to the bust Tuesday, Shimrado said, and he's relieved it finally happened.

"I'm happy to see kids can walk by without worrying," he said. "I'm sure a lot of parents would be happy. All the neighbors are happy now, I can tell you that."

Phone tips lead to pot bust, arrests

The raid on a marijuana-growing operation on Coffee Street was not the only one conducted by law enforcement Tuesday. More telephone tips led the Merced Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force to the 500 block of South Buhach Road in the afternoon, and authorities served an "Operation Mercury" search warrant there, according to deputy Tom MacKenzie, Merced County sheriff's spokesman.

Agents seized 200 marijuana plants, 300 pounds of dried marijuana and a stolen handgun. They also found packaging material and scales, indicating the marijuana would be used for sales. According to MacKenzie, 10 people ran from the house and were detained by deputies. He said all of them were in custody Tuesday night after fighting with authorities.

During the struggle, MacKenzie said, one person tripped over a fence, breaking his arm, and another was bitten by a sheriff's K-9. Deputies fired nonlethal rounds at two of the suspects during the altercation. A sheriff's deputy sustained a moderate injury to his wrist, officials said.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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