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Major drug operation busted in northern Merced County

In an operation that began about 1:30 p.m. Monday and didn't wind down until about 4 a.m. Tuesday, Merced County Sheriff's deputies dismantled a major drug-manufacturing and distribution site in the 19000 block of Third Avenue in Stevinson.

Judging from evidence seized, the drug dealers apparently were very serious about what they were doing.

Officers from the Narcotics Enforcement Team and Sheriff's Tactical and Reconnaissance Team found an arsenal of weapons including two assault rifles, some of the equipment for a sizable methamphetamine-making operation, $1,000 in cash and 420 mature marijuana plants.

The 6-foot-tall pot plants, sophisticated growing lights and an air filtration system filled one of the homes at the complex of farm buildings.

Deputy Clint Landrum said he wasn't shocked to see the 11 heavy-duty weapons seized but was thankful to find the guns "rather than them being used on us."

"Narcotics is a multimillion-dollar business and when you're in it for the money, you protect it like you hold it dear," he said.

Four residents scrambled off when Sheriff's Deputy Daryl Allen responded to a disturbance call Monday afternoon and haven't been located. A farmer who had 40 bales of hay stolen, about 2½ tons, confronted a neighbor about the missing hay and a disturbance resulted.

Allen discovered 6-foot marijuana plants inside a homemade building draped with clear plastic sheeting. Ultimately, three search warrants were served before all the contraband was seized.

Deputy Paul Barile, NET supervisor, said the size of the haul means they "hit a pretty good nerve" -- taking down a major narcotics trafficking and distribution site.

"These are the guys who are putting the stuff on the street, which causes property crimes, thefts and murders," Barile said. "We're not dealing with street-level thugs. It's just a matter of time before we pick them up (three adults and a 17-year-old boy); we know who they are."

Among the weapons seized were two Chinese-made SKS assault rifles, one with a 30-round ammunition clip, and a .22-caliber rifle with a modified flash suppressor and silencer.

Sheriff Mark Pazin said assault rifles are just "killing machines" and Tuesday's discovery illustrates how drug dealers will go to any length to promulgate their dealing of drugs and illegal contraband. One of the assault rifles had a night vision scope and bayonet. A tactical 12-gauge shotgun had a pistol grip and a collapsible stock.

Pazin said he's glad the weapons were taken off the streets. He said drug dealers need the heavy firepower to protect themselves from other drug traffickers.

Barile said a minimum of 12 pounds of methamphetamine had been produced at the site in the past 30 days. The lab had been dismantled but most of the chemicals used in meth manufacturing were still there and capable of further large-scale production. More than three pounds of middle-grade marijuana were found.

Meth now is fetching $20,000 a pound and has reached a record high of $90 a gram on the street. In the past 90 days, deputies have seized nine pounds of meth locally, not including meth labs, Barile said.

"The sheriff said it's time to let the big dogs loose," Barile said. "In the last three months we've made 90 narcotics-related arrests. We likely will see more crook-to-crook crime in the future."

A home invasion robbery took place last December at one of the houses. Sometimes these robberies target drug dealers, Landrum said.

Sgt. Steve Sziraki, supervisor of the NET and STAR teams, said discovery of the firearms far outweighs more common discoveries of drugs.

"There's only one reason for some of these guns, to be used against law enforcement," Sziraki said. Most of the weapons were loaded and ready to go, Barile said.

The farmer originally followed a trail of oat hay debris across the street to the Third Avenue location, setting up the disturbance call that summoned Allen. Twenty-one of the 40 bales stolen were recovered.

Oat hay is going for $200 to $210 a ton, said Deputy Roy Tighe of the Ag Crimes Unit. Last year, the same hay was going for $125 a ton.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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