Cops seize 2,100 pot plants in recent sting | SierraSun.com

Cops seize 2,100 pot plants in recent sting

David Mirhadi
Sun News Service

NEVADA COUNTY “-An investigation into questionable financial dealings drew the attention of federal drug enforcement agents who raided properties in seven counties, leading to the arrest of a Nevada County man at a residence just outside Grass Valley.

Richard McClure, 51, was arrested at a home on Butler Street in Grass Valley after authorities found him at a home with 60 marijuana plants. McClure was also found with $15,000 in cash in a vehicle on the property.

His arrest was part of a two-month operation that concluded Tuesday and netted the seizure of 2,100 marijuana plants and $625,000 in cash as well as rifles, shotguns and handguns. Most of the material was found in El Dorado County.

It is the latest example of the criminal acts and violence often tied to commercial pot growing, by far California’s most valuable cash crop according to law enforcement authorities.

McClure was transported by federal marshals to El Dorado County after he was arrested. Four other suspects were taken into custody by the U.S. Marshal’s office, Nevada County Narcotics Task Force Sgt. Bill Smethers said. They were identified by the state Department of Justice as Ryan Ennis, 36, Justin Downey, 27, Colleen Wood, 47, and Maika Tagalu, 19.

Those arrested will face federal charges of conspiracy to manufacture and cultivate marijuana, according to the California Attorney General’s Office.

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The El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office initiated the investigation.

The investigation began in September as the Mountain and Valley Marijuana Investigation Team, comprised of state and federal law enforcement agencies investigated questionable financial dealings and forwarded them to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Authorities later discovered an outdoor growing operation in Pollock Pines in El Dorado County, according to the California Attorney General’s office. Suspects in the case had spent “millions of dollars on properties in El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Mendocino, Sacramento, Alameda and San Francisco counties.” The operation, which included land purchases, had been going on for four years, according to the Attorney General’s office.

U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott said his office has been looking to aggressively pursue marijuana traffickers by researching questionable multiple financial dealings of those involved, which is how this particular case unfolded. In many cases, suspects make deposits of large sums of cash — generally sums just shy of $10,000 — that raise the suspicions of investigators and led to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency assisting local law enforcement in cracking this case.

In many cases, the federal government intervenes in such marijuana busts when there are over 1,000 plants to be rounded up, Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal said.

The federal government generally has wider latitude to punish offenders who grow and sell marijuana, which means those arrested Tuesday will most likely face harsher federal penalties than those allowed under California law, Royal said.

California Proposition 215, which allows for the medicinal use of marijuana, has no bearing on federal law.

The size and scope of this operation triggered federal action on this case, Royal said.

“And they’re going to see much more severe penalties, because the feds don’t have to comply as much with state statutes,” he said.

The number of plants seized in Nevada County this year has dropped precipitously from last year.

In 2007, the county’s Narcotics Task Force seized 50,000 plants. This year, the task force has rounded up just 3,800.

Smethers said he believes the reason is because prescriptions for medicinal marijuana have simply become easier to obtain.

“Now, you have people 16 years old getting prescriptions,” he said. “People are seeing that it’s becoming more lucrative, and they’re hiding behind (the issue) of medical marijuana.”

The issue, Royal said, is determining whether a commercial operation is in place. In this instance, the people involved in the operation built extensive greenhouses for the marijuana and even hired legitimate backhoe services to excavate and grade land for the construction of facilities.