On Sept. 15, a joint task force, made up of ten members of the Unified Narcotic Enforcement Team (UNET), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CA DF&W), and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), raided an illegal marijuana cultivation operation after trekking more than six hours over eight miles of rugged backcountry in the Paicines area.
When the team discovered the location of the operation, they found two Hispanic males who immediately fled the scene. One man managed to escape, while the second, Elizandro Hernandez Alvarado, 31, a self-admitted non-resident of the U.S., who claimed to live in Los Banos, was chased down, but not before tossing away a loaded .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun. The weapon was reported to have been stolen out of the Los Angeles area.
Richard Westphal, taskforce commander for the California Department of Justice’s UNET, said the team had to follow foot and game trails through private and public lands up to 1,300 feet elevation in order to find the illegal operation. He said a hunter had discovered a trash bag containing a sleeping bag and food, and then reported it to law enforcement authorities.
“Initially, we didn’t know where the grow was, but as we followed the paths we could smell it,” he said. “It was about an hour and a half south of Hollister.”
Westphal said it is not uncommon for BLM and Fish & Wildlife to assist UNET in marijuana raids.
“Everybody works together,” he said. “Fish & Wildlife is excellent because besides the health and safety code they’re well versed in environmental codes because of the contaminants, such as fertilizers, pesticides and rodent killers that we find in these ‘gardens’ that are not well tended or cared for that pollute the environment and harm wildlife.”
Even though the marijuana grow was found on BLM land, Westphal said prosecution will be a state matter. Westphal commented Sept. 25 that he had not as yet sent the case to the district attorney’s office. Alvarado had been released the day after arrest on $76,000 bail, according to authorities. Westphal said Alvarado claimed to be from Los Banos, and there was no obvious indication that he was a gang member or associated with a cartel.
“But it’s definitely an organization grow,” he said, adding that Alvarado and the man who escaped were most likely part of a larger group that had cultivated the more than 2,000 plants, some of which had grown to more than 14-feet tall. He said there was a kitchen, camping equipment, scales, a wash station for clothing, and two man-made reservoirs for watering the plants. “A couple people would stay there at a time and then be rotated out.”
Because of the legal ambiguity in California regarding marijuana, Westphal said this particular grow could be considered illegal because there were no signs posted indicating the crop was part of a medical co-op and because it was located on BLM land.
Because there was no air support for the operation to remove the 2,000 plants scattered over roughly 20-acre site, they were cut and stacked and left scattered on the ground. He said because the marijuana grow was located on BLM land, and it would be a fire hazard, they could not burn the plants. He said the plants would deteriorate quickly and begin to mold within hours under the hot sun.
“We did the best we could to make them worthless. They just basically wither away like a tomato plant when you pull it out of the ground,” he said, adding that he estimated their value at approximately $170,000, plus another five one-pound bags of processed marijuana that would be worth a little under $5,000.
Alvarado was booked at the San Benito County Jail and could face charges of marijuana cultivation, possession of marijuana for sales, possession of a stolen firearm, possession of a firearm while committing a felony, resisting arrest, and environmental crimes. Westphal commented that, if convicted, Alvarado could be facing just as much prison time, if not more, for environmental crimes as he would for those related to marijuana.
“Across the board, there seems to be more public concern about environment crimes,” he conceded. “Everybody has their own view about marijuana, but just about everyone seems to be in tune about those who are polluting the environment. There’s definitely more concern about diverting waterways, polluting water or killing animals, especially endangered species. Last year, we did a garden and there were guns and a dead kangaroo rat. The guy got an additional six or eight month enhancement for killing the rat.”
Westphal said he was hopeful that Alvarado would show up for arraignment because he appeared to have a clean record and apparently had family in Los Banos.
Candice Hooper, San Benito County District Attorney, had not received the report yet from Westphal, but said once she does her department will file a complaint and a notice to appear will be sent to Alvarado. If he does not appear by the court date an arrest warrant for failure to appear will be filed.
While she wasn’t sure of the number, Hooper said there have not been many marijuana cases prosecuted recently, but said if the facts line up as Westphal described them, the case would move forward. She said of the environmental charges that there are circuit prosecutors from the California District Attorneys Office who are motivated to go after environmental violations at no cost to the county.
“They are cross-deputized in the county and a lot of times we will utilize them to prosecute the case,” she said. “Not having seen the case yet, I’m not saying that is what’s going to happen.”
Similar to how the federal government finally was able to bring down Al Capone in 1931 for income tax evasion rather than bootlegging and murder, Hooper said California seems be leaning towards the environmental implications of marijuana cultivation.
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