Nearly 200 acres of marijuana, one of the largest ‘ever seen in the Central Valley’

Federal investigators and Merced County sheriff’s deputies on Monday announced the seizure of hundreds of thousands of marijuana plants over 194 acres on Dos Palos farmland.

“This is an unprecedented grow and at this time we are actively investigating it,” Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke told reporters at a news conference.

The sheriff said a search warrant was authored by the DEA as well as the Merced County Sheriff’s Office.

The grow, located in the area of Hutchins Road and Palm Avenue in Dos Palos, was described by deputies as “one of the biggest marijuana grows ever seen in the Central Valley.”

Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke, left, and United States Attorney for the Eastern District of California, McGregor Scott, right, announce an investigation of a 194 acre marijuana grow on the west side of Merced County at the Merced County Sheriff’s Office in Merced, Calif., on Monday, Nov. 5, 2018. Andrew Kuhn

According to a copy of a search warrant affidavit filed as part of the investigation, the plants were located on land connected to Dos Palos farmer Chad Crivelli, who could not be reached for comment Monday.

“We want folks to know that California has marijuana laws. If you abide by those laws, you’ll be free to do what you’re going to do. Merced County has an ordinance pertaining to marijuana, however when 194 acres is planted on the pretense that it’s hemp, it causes some concerns,” Warnke said.

Investigators have been watching the property around the clock for the past week and deputies have arrested four individuals attempting to steal marijuana from the property. Two guns have also been seized. Authorities said people are coming from as far away as Scotts Valley and the Santa Cruz area to target the marijuana grow.

The Merced County Sheriff’s Office, California Department of Justice, The U.S. DEA, and the United States Attorney’s office are all involved with the investigation.

McGregor Scott, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of California, told reporters his investigators have been communicating with the Merced deputies for several weeks.

“We culminated those communications this morning with the execution and service of a federal search warrant on that property,” he said.

A task force composed of members of the Merced County Sheriff’s Department, the State Department of Fish and Wildlife, the state Attorney Generals Office and the DEA are currently taking down the marijuana grow.

“The presence of local, state and federal law enforcement officers makes a very strong statement that this grow is illegal under anybody’s law, state and federal,” said Scott.

Warnke called the situation an unfortunate event for the rancher involved. Warnke said deputies had previously advised the rancher to not grow what he initially claimed was going to be hemp.

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An image from a nearly 200-acre marijuana grow near Dos Palos in Merced County California. Photo courtesy of the Merced County Sheriff’s Department.

“It was shared with him by my office as well as others to not do it because we don’t have enough in place to regulate it and to secure that. I was told it was going to be growing hemp, and it turned out to be marijuana.”

The THC content of the plants growing on the Crivelli farmland tested eight times the legal limit of what is allowed in hemp, according to Merced County Sheriff Deputy Daryl Allen.

Allen said the results of the THC test is what led the local officials to reach out to the DEA, whose investigators took several samples of the plants to test and confirmed them to be marijuana, according to Allen.

“There is no doubt in my mind that our homicide rate was so high a few years ago directly related to marijuana grows,” said Warnke. “That’s why I’ve taken such an active stance in this county against anybody growing it. Especially outdoors. That’s why we’ve got the ordinance that we do.”

Scott said the rancher could face criminal cultivation charges.

“We’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of thousands of plants,” said McGregor. “I’ve seen big, big grows but they’re typically up in the mountains on the National Forest Service land. I’ve never seen anything down here on the valley floor like this, ever.”

Warnke said there is no cartel influence associated with the marijuana grow.