Valley's narcotic fighters honored for Merced marijuana bust

WASHINGTON -- The White House this week is saluting the Central Valley investigators who busted Merced resident and alleged big-time marijuana dealer Arnoldo Herrera.

Law enforcement officers called their statewide, several-month campaign against Herrera "Operation Plumas Smoke." The White House drug czar's office calls it the outstanding group investigative effort of 2007, one of several drug-fighting awards being presented Thursday to the Valley's local, state and federal investigators.

"We did real well," said Bill Ruzzamenti, director of the Fresno-based Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. "We do well every year."

The HIDTA coordinates anti-drug efforts in a nine-county region from Sacramento to Bakersfield. In a ceremony Thursday, officers will pick up four group awards and two individual awards from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The White House office provides the nonmonetary awards as a morale booster for troops involved in the Bush administration's National Marijuana Initiative. Several dozen Valley law enforcement officers will attend the ceremony at the Treasury Department, about a block from the White House.

"They are taking on what some people think are just harmless hippies up in the hills, but who are really Mexican drug-trafficking organizations," Scott Burns, deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said Monday. "It's important to reward and acknowledge their exceptional service."

The six drug-fighting awards going to Central Valley law enforcement officers are among 40 national awards being presented.

Operation Plumas Smoke kicked off in June.

Supervised by Brent Wood of the California Department of Justice's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, investigators located a dozen major marijuana gardens scattered throughout Santa Clara, Butte, Plumas and Humboldt counties.

A wiretap on Herrera's phone led investigators to identify other conspirators, according to a summary of the investigation.

"As each of his gardens was eradicated, Herrera got more and more distraught," a summary of the operation stated, further alleging that Herrera eventually became a marijuana broker for other growers.

Over several months of Operation Plumas Smoke, the investigators said they seized 101,439 mature marijuana plants and 297 pounds of processed marijuana, along with firearms and $50,000 in cash. In October, investigators concluded the operation by arresting 14 individuals.

Herrera now sits in Fresno County Jail, awaiting trial on the charges that could confine him in federal prison for the rest of his life.

Jerry Adams, who set up a Central Valley "marijuana intelligence fusion center," and intelligence analyst Jill Edwards, who helped start the center in late 2004, are receiving individual awards.

"She gets hundreds of calls and e-mails from federal or local drug agents asking her to validate an obscure piece of information that might be a key link in the jigsaw-puzzle world of investigating [drug dealers]," an award summary states.

Congress established the HIDTA program in 1988 as a way to target federal funding and coordinate efforts in specific regions. It started with five designated areas, including Los Angeles.

The Central Valley HIDTA began in 1999, targeting the methamphetamine production then proliferating through the rural region. Since then, it has shifted more attention to large-scale marijuana operations.