Merced county deploys helicopters, boats in bust

05/16/2013 4:29 PM

05/17/2013 12:02 AM

Merced County sheriff's deputies and drug task force agents descended upon a massive marijuana growing operation near the Fremont Ford State Recreation Area on Thursday.

More than 15,000 plants were eradicated during the operation about five miles northeast of Gustine Airport, said Sgt. Rich Howard of the Merced Multi-Agency Narcotics/HIDTA Task Force.

No suspects are in custody.

With the assistance of Department of Fish and Game officials, the task force served a federal search warrant in the wildlife preserve off Highway 140. Agents found a total of more than a dozen outdoor growing sites.

The marijuana was growing in relatively remote rural areas, which are thick with green vegetation. Law enforcement accessed the area by boat on the San Joaquin River.

The Merced County Sheriff's Department's Huey helicopter was used to transport teams of deputies and agents to the sites. The department's Sable II helicopter was also at the scene, searching for growing sites and suspects.

Howard said getting rid of the marijuana in the wildlife preserve was only one part of the job. He said the growers left plenty of trash and equipment behind, including irrigation lines and camping gear.

Agents must clean up the chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides the growers abandoned at the scene. Howard said such chemicals can be extremely hazardous to the local species of fish and wildlife.

He said he didn't have an estimate on the street value of the marijuana eradicated during the operation, although it probably weighed "thousands of pounds."

Law enforcement agencies typically see a rise in outdoor marijuana growing operations between April and October

"These are actually really remote and difficult to get to," he said of Thursday's discovery. "It was a good job by the aviation unit, spotting them to begin with.

"Because even now, as we locate more grows on the ground and confirm those through the air, it's just a real tall task for both air and ground to work together and identify them in the thick terrain that's here."

Dogs from the Sheriff's Department's K-9 division assisted deputies during the operation.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

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