$2.4 million pot operation busted near Los Banos

LOS BANOS -- About six tons of marijuana plants were destroyed by 10 members of the Merced County Sheriff's Narcotics Enforcement Team and Sheriff's Tactical and Reconnaissance Team on Friday.

The deputies raided a growing site located in dense cover about three miles east of Wolfsen Road just southeast of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos at about 8 a.m. and found about 6,000 mature marijuana plants.

Guided to the grow by Deputy John McKnight and Cmdr. Tom Cavallero flying in the Merced County Sheriff's Department's helicopter, team members cut their way through thick brush to access the concealed crop.

Once through the undergrowth, deputies found the marijuana plants had already been harvested and were hanging from twine strung between the native willow trees, drying before being trimmed and packaged.

"This is on par to be one of the biggest grows we've hit this year because it was all finished product," said Merced County Sheriff's Department spokesman Tom MacKenzie.

About 30 pounds of flower buds from the plants had already been trimmed of leaves and stems, and packaged in plastic bags for distribution. The buds contain the highest concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive substance found in marijuana.

The operation had been spotted earlier by the helicopter crew, who recorded its location using Global Positioning Satellite coordinants until deputies could schedule a time to confiscate the marijuana, MacKenzie said.

Besides the illegal drug, deputies found two loaded weapons, a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun and .38-caliber semi-automatic pistol. Extra ammunition for the firearms was also confiscated.

Although no one was at the site when the raid occurred, deputies believe whoever was tending the mosquito-infested growing area was living there. A tunnel through the undergrowth led from where the plants had been cultivated to a makeshift kitchen, and further to an escape route to the north toward the San Joaquin River. A bed frame made from willow branches was also found at the site.

Taking advantage of the high water table at the site, whoever was growing the crop had dug a seven-foot deep well through the hardpan found in some areas of the county. In the well was a bucket which deputies believe was used to carry water to the marijuana plants.

MacKenzie said the confiscated marijuana would have a street value of about $2.4 million.