Wednesday, June 25, 2008



Agents Sweep SoHum Commercial Grows

Motorcades of government SUVs poured through Humboldt County communities Tuesday as hundreds of federal and state agents began their search for commercial marijuana growing operations in a multi-day investigation the FBI has dubbed "Operation Southern Sweep."

The bureau's spokesman Joseph Schadler reported 450 agents with several federal agencies would be serving search warrants and collecting evidence on properties where "corporate marijuana growing operations" were suspected.

On Tuesday morning, at the operation's command center in Fortuna's River Lodge parking lot, Schadler said 27 search warrants would be executed over the course of the day, and two more are expected later this week.

He said he could not discuss what properties agents raided Tuesday, or which they had yet to investigate.

Medical marijuana dispensaries and 215 patients would not be targeted by the investigation, Schadler said. The Humboldt Cooperative, a medical marijuana dispensary in Arcata, said Tuesday evening that federal agents had not interfered with business.

"We're not here to set policy or interfere with California's compassionate use laws," Schadler said. The FBI is investigating "for-profit and corporate grow operations beyond the scope of 215."

Those alleged for-profit growing operations total some 2,000 acres of outdoor cultivation, spread across Southern Humboldt and Northern Mendocino counties, Schadler Advertisement said. Additionally, at least one home in Arcata was raided.

Federal agents on the scene of the stings were tight-lipped about their work and would not answer media questions; however the agents were observed searching properties throughout the county.

Early Tuesday, Arcata police stood ready to assist as federal agents served one search warrant at a house on Virginia Way in Sunny Brae. The federal agents carried grow lights and other equipment, as well as boxes and bags filled with evidence, into the front yard.

In Shelter Cove, at least two homes were broken into by authorities - -- the damaged front doors scarred by police battering rams.

In the front yard of a house outside Whitethorn, a pile of uprooted marijuana plants was stacked next to rows of grow lights, a computer and an assortment of growing equipment. One agent stood in the doorway of the house, holding a clear plastic bag filled with cash, as other agents scoured the house for other evidence.

Schadler said investigators would be taking DNA evidence, seizing weapons and chopping plants as part of their evidence gathering.

Individuals suspected of involvement in the alleged growing operations were not part of Tuesday's sting, as the agencies were focused on collecting evidence and building cases against possible growers, Schadler said. But he anticipates "seeing charges later on down the line."

Although Schadler said agents were not interested in making arrests, one man was taken into police custody after reportedly assaulting an officer. Schadler said he did not know if charges would be filed.

The operation -- a result of a two-year-long investigation instigated by the California Department of Justice's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement -- started around 7 a.m. Tuesday when convoys of SUVs left the hotel parking lot.

The parking lot was transformed into a make-shift mission control center for the teams. A gray RV-sized vehicle, adorned with a radio tower and satellite, was parked in front of the hotel, and fed information to personnel on laptops and satellite phones inside.

The River Lodge was off-limits to the public, and inside numerous government agents could be seen circulating through the building throughout the day.

Schadler said agents would be in the area for "a couple days," and a hotel clerk reported their rooms have been booked through Friday.

The personnel involved are part of an alphabet soup of government agencies, which include the Bureau of Narcotics, the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration.

Local authorities like California Highway Patrol and the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office also aided in the investigation.

Sheriff Lt. George Cavinta said six deputies assisted federal agents, providing logistical information.

"It's a very rural country that they're into," he said. "You're taking a large amount of metropolitan agents and getting them adjusted to the setting in Humboldt County."

The Sheriff's Office reported it was not involved with any of the 29 warrants issued for the operation.

Schadler said he could not discuss what evidence allowed them to attain the search warrants.

In some cases, warrants have been obtained by local law enforcement using Pacific Gas and Electric Co. records to find the houses drawing noticeably more electricity off the grid, which often indicates marijuana grows.

PG&E spokeswoman Jana Morris said the company never volunteers records of any customers, but it must cooperate if authorities present search warrants.

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