Janesville23.8°

Hunters stumble upon massive marijuana crop

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Mike DuPre'
October 15, 2008
— It was big. It was sophisticated. It was highly organized.

It was the largest marijuana-growing operation the brass at the Rock County Sheriff’s Office had seen in their decades on the job.


And it apparently was the operation of a criminal organization rooted in Mexico but flowering in the upper Midwest.


No arrests have been made in the ongoing investigation.


“These aren’t farm boys trying to make a few bucks,” Sheriff Bob Spoden said. “There was a level of sophistication I haven’t seen in my career.


“This was new for our experienced drug officers.”


And it was new to the hunters scouting private land in Lima Township near Rock-Walworth County Line Road and Johnstown-Lima Town Line Road in the northeast corner of Rock County.


Isolated location

The grow site was not in Lima Marsh but was adjacent to public land, said Spoden, who declined to be more specific about the location.


The Janesville Gazette learned the crossroads to which the site was nearest through search warrant documents.


Two hunters had stalked deer in some 15 acres of woods and swampy land around the woods last fall. They returned to set up their deer stand for the upcoming season Saturday, Aug. 23.


They found the remnants of what looked to be a harvested marijuana field, about an acre in all, said Lt. Todd Christiansen, head of the sheriff’s office detective bureau.


When they found the first of two tents at the grow site, they backed out of the woods and called the sheriff’s office.


The sheriff’s new Special Investigation Unit—made up of officers from several jurisdictions—went to search the area.


‘Awesome’ plants

The officers found four separate areas—each about an acre—that had been cleared to grow reefer, and they encountered about 600 6- to 8-foot-tall, high-grade, female marijuana plants growing in one of the areas, Christiansen said.


“Some, you couldn’t get your arms around,” he said. “They were very well tended, very well cared for. … The plants were awesome.”


In addition, they found a 2-foot mound of marijuana scraps, what Christiansen called “waste,” and about 11 pounds of processed marijuana.


They found a second tent—an obvious encampment—and two men who looked Latino.


The men, who officers suspect were there to tend and harvest the plants, took off running. Officers were not able to catch them or find a vehicle that they might have used to flee the area.


Officers first went to the site about 10 a.m. Aug. 23.


At 10:30 or 11 p.m. that day, a Milton officer saw two Latino males in dirty, tattered clothes walking near Highway 26 and Johnstown-Lima Town Line Road, Christiansen said.


But before the officer could stop and question them, they ran into a cornfield and escaped.


“We’re assuming they’re the same two,” he said.


Money to Mexico

At the grow site, officers found no weapons, booby traps or money, Christiansen and Spoden said.


But they found a cell phone, a notebook with names, phone numbers and PIN numbers and receipts for the transfer of money from the United States to Mexico, according to the search warrant documents.


“You’re seeing these type of grow operations all over the United States—California, Arkansas,” the sheriff said. “After 9/11, border security was greatly enhanced, so it was more difficult for smugglers to get marijuana and other drugs across the border.


“So they’re getting willing participants to come across the border for these activities. Obviously, this is a sophisticated operation not only able to bring in people but also the resources to build and maintain these areas.”


Officers had to use all-terrain vehicles to get into and out of the site, but they found no vehicles for the two men tending it.


The men had camouflaged their living tent with a dark tarp covered by foliage, and either they or another crew had stacked the foliage cleared from the grow sites to act as barricades, Christiansen said.


Officers found paths worn through the woods but not through the 6-foot-high marsh grass surrounding them.


The marsh grass was so tall that when officers walked through it, they could see only the tops of the trees in the woods, Christiansen said.


Besides marijuana, the men at the site were growing tomatoes and cucumbers.


Officers found a lot of empty Corona beer cases, Mexican food, a cooking stove, kitchen utensils and sleeping gear for two people.


‘Well disciplined operation’

Based on the evidence, investigators think the suspects are Mexican, Spoden said. “We know they are Latinos. We saw them.”


Investigators think that as many as three, possibly four, crews worked the site: one crew to clear it, another to plant the marijuana, the third, and perhaps a fourth, to tend and harvest the crop, Christiansen said.


Local investigators have no leads on how and where the pot was to be distributed or on the identity of the two fugitives, he said.


In addition, police have picked up no leads on which criminal gang provided the umbrella of resources and organization for the grow site or on any disruption in local marijuana distribution.


“So it was a very well disciplined operation with no prior knowledge or intelligence on the street,” Christiansen said. “What that leads us to believe is that these people were left out there and lived out there and didn’t have any contact with locals.”


Local investigators are talking to authorities in other counties about similar operations.


Although the growers had painted the tree stumps green and camouflaged parts of the operation, a savvy observer could have spotted the site from the air if he or she knew what to look for and where to look, Christiansen said.


But he doubted that widespread aerial reconnaissance would have found the growing site.


“The property owner and neighbors all around it were surprised,” Christiansen said. “The property owner hadn’t been there in years, but he allowed hunting.”


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The large marijuana farm found here in August apparently was the work of organized criminals and is similar to those discovered in August and July in Kenosha County and McHenry County, Ill.


Investigators from the counties have been comparing notes on the discoveries, and a summit of sheriffs has been discussed. Federal drug investigators also are aware of the massive reefer grows.


While local investigators in the various counties say they have no direct evidence linking the marijuana farms, the similarities lead them to suspect they are related, possibly the work of a single organized crime gang.


Latino men, probably Mexican immigrants, lived at and tended the sites. The farms involved hundreds to thousands of high-grade, transplanted plants in remote areas in or near woods and water.


Authorities pegged the value of each plant, had it grown to full size, at $800 to $1,250, so the farmers were growing marijuana that could have fetched millions of dollars on the street.


Kenosha County

In July, a farmer in Brighton Township in Kenosha County saw a man running through a cornfield. When detectives investigated, they chased but did not catch two suspects, but the cops found 5,200 marijuana plants, some in the field but most in woods adjacent to the field, said Sgt. Frank Iovine, head of Kenosha County’s controlled substance unit.


The men used a generator to power a pump and draw water from a nearby pond through pipes and hand-dug ditches to irrigate the plants, and they apparently carried water as well, Iovine said.


“This wasn’t junk weed,” Iovine said. “Had they brought it to harvest, they would have gotten top dollar.”


The two men dropped their wallets in the chase, and officers found Mexican driver’s licenses in them, he said.


As in Rock County, investigators in Kenosha County believe that different crews worked the grow sites at different phases: clearing, planting, tending, harvesting and processing.


“It’s a compartmentalized operation,” Iovine said, “so if you catch a tending crew, they might not be able to give you much information. We know they’re using Mexican labor, but we haven’t determined if it’s a Mexican gang. It could be an Anglo gang hiring Mexicans.


“Because each phase is compartmentalized, it’s difficult to trace back up the ladder.”


McHenry County

McHenry County officers arrested one man suspected of being a pot tender, Sheriff Keith Nygren said.


The suspect was Mexican. He told detectives he was hired at a Chicagoland mall by another man, who, the suspect said, was Latino but whose nationality was unknown, Nygren said.


“The guy we arrested was an employee,” the sheriff said.


Authorities discovered six or seven large grow sites in McHenry County in July and August, and evidence at four or five of them—such as tents, makeshift furniture and kitchens and portable showers—indicated that people were living there, Nygren said.


Four of the sites were big as football fields and could have been growing as many as 5,000 to 6,000 plants each. One of the big farms was made up of obviously transplanted plants, which, Nygren said, probably were started indoors in hydroponic tanks.


About half the growing sites were on public conservancy land, and all were found within a 4- or 5-mile-diameter rural area—usually near streams—not far from Wisconsin, Nygren said.


Officers in Kenosha and McHenry counties did not find any guns or booby traps at the grow sites this summer, but Nygren said his officers have found punji sticks—sharpened stakes—at pot farms in the past.


Walworth County

Although officials in three counties—Rock and Kenosha in Wisconsin and McHenry in Illinois—said they thought at least one similar sophisticated growing operation with an encampment was found in Walworth County, Capt. Dana Nygbor, head of detectives, refused to acknowledge it.


“I’m not going to comment on an ongoing criminal investigation,” she said.


In May, a Walworth County farmer discovered a cornfield with 400 to 500 young marijuana plants apparently growing from seeds, not transplanted plants, but investigators did not find evidence of anyone living there, Nygbor said.


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SOPHISTICATED OPERATION

Officials said the Lima Township marijuana farm was a sophisticated operation because:


-- It was isolated in hard-to-get-to terrain in woods near water.


-- It had four growing areas cleared of hundreds of trees by handsaws.


-- Tree stumps were painted green to avoid detection.


-- An estimated 2,400 high-grade plants were transplanted, not grown from seed.


-- They found paper cups holding baby plants painted green to avoid detection.


-- Each plant would have yield three-quarters to a full pound of pot. The value of 600 found plants was estimated at $750,000.


-- Tenders lived in a camp on site and used fertilizer, irrigation ditches and groundwater drawn from 2-foot-deep hole.


-- Several crews were believed to have worked the site at various stages: clearing, planting, tending and harvesting.


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POT PATROL

Rock County Sheriff Spoden encouraged rural landowners to walk their property and look for suspicious activity, such as marijuana growing.


If landowners, hunters, hikers or others encounter a site they suspect is being used for illegal activity such as pot-growing, they should not disturb it, Spoden said.


They should contact the sheriff’s office immediately.


Residents should be wary and careful around such areas because many marijuana-growing sites have been found to be booby-trapped with explosives and/or sharpened stakes. Guns and other weapons have been found at pot farms as well, Spoden said.


The traps and guns are not necessarily intended to dissuade law enforcement but to protect against competitors swooping in and stealing the valuable crop, the sheriff explained.


Although officials in three counties—Rock and Kenosha in Wisconsin and McHenry in Illinois—said they thought at least one similar sophisticated growing operation with an encampment was found in Walworth County, Capt. Dana Nygbor, head of detectives, refused to acknowledge it.


“I’m not going to comment on an ongoing criminal investigation,” she said.


In May, a Walworth County farmer discovered a cornfield with 400 to 500 young marijuana plants apparently growing from seeds, not transplanted plants, but investigators did not find evidence of anyone living there, Nygbor said.



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