A two-year investigation of a 2,000-acre property in Humboldt County’s Lost River area, Operation Southern Sweep went above ground this week as an invading force of 450 federal and state agents descended in convoys of as many as 200 vehicles on California’s famed Emerald Triangle pot-growing region. No arrests have been reported yet, but 10,000 marijuana plants were allegedly confiscated during 29 different raids in southern Humboldt and northern Mendocino counties.
The California Department of Justice (DOJ) confirmed along with the FBI office in Fortuna that DOJ had begun an investigation in 2006 of what they called a large, commercial marijuana growing and distribution operation, and had brought in federal agencies due to the financial complexities of the case. Officials said the locations were all connected to the Lost River property, rumored to have been sold to sharecroppers who used postal money orders to make their payments. The federal agencies involved are FBI, IRS, DEA and US Postal Service.
On June 24, the first day of the campaign, officials stressed that they were not looking for medical-marijuana gardens or cooperatives. One cooperative in Arcata was reportedly visited by investigators. In Sunny Brea, agents raided a house and took about 35 plants from a legal medipot garden.
“The FBI stressed that they weren’t there for the small 215 garden,” the grower said [a reference to California’s 1996 Proposition 215, that legalized medical marijuana]. “They found them, and they said they had to take them, and we didn’t contest it.”
But FBI special agent Joeseph Schadler maintained, “215 doesn’t apply to the Feds. That grow is associated directly with this overall operation.”
Local residents reported that federal agents conducted raids in the Island Mountain and Harris area, and that armed agents stopped people in the Island Mountain area and searched cars. Officials did not verify that. Officers were seen on the lawn of a small house in Redway, knocking on nearby doors, as though looking for an address. Two young men off the Lost River property were reportedly apprehended at 6 AM Tuesday [June 24] morning with guns to their heads.
Pre-raid rumors suggested Pacific Gas & Electric had released records of local homes with large energy usage. PG&E spokeswoman Jana Morris told the Eureka Reporter the company never volunteers records of any customers, although it must cooperate if authorities present search warrants.
Photographs published in the Eureka Times-Standard showed numerous officers sorting through papers at the raid sites, presumably looking for financial records. No immediate arrests were anticipated in the raids.
There were citizen reports of SWAT snipers with scopes and tripods, children being awoken with guns and detained, and parents handcuffed and moved to a command post. One person said he was asked, “Did I profit from marijuana, did I have a job, was I responsible, what my neighbors were up to?”
California map Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who two weeks earlier had declared record drought, has called in the California National Guard to help with firefighting efforts after hundreds of fires were started in remote areas during spectacular lightning storms across the state last weekend.
As of today, nearly all the Humboldt fires were contained, but in Mendocino as many as 70 fires raged on, and evacuations had begun in a few areas. Five houses burned Thursday and two on Wednesday as sheriffs went door to door with evacuation warnings. The Mendocino effort involves 815 firefighters.
Nonfederal agencies involved in Operation Southern Sweep, include California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement (BNE), California Highway Patrol, California National Guard Counter Drug Task Force, Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), California Department of Fish and Game, Eureka Police Department, Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office and the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office. CA DOJ/BNE task forces included the North and South Butte Interagency Narcotic Task Force, Tehama Interagency Drug Enforcement, Glenn Interagency Narcotic Task Force, Shasta Interagency Narcotic Task Force, Siskiyou County Interagency Narcotic Task Force, Humboldt County Drug Task Force, Mendocino County Major Crimes Task Force, San Jose Unified Narcotic Enforcement Team and the Madera County Narcotic Enforcement Team.
A joint DOJ/FBI press release from June 25 said although there were no building permits issued for the Lost River property, aerial photos revealed building and grading taking place. Property owners, who purchased the property collectively in a process that reportedly took years in escrow, were told by officials they couldn’t return to their property until Saturday, leaving animals and vegetable gardens unattended. The FBI’s Schadler reiterated that Operation Southern Sweep is aimed at a particular distribution network and said his team was working on a plan to deal with the animal problem.
Callers to KMUD on Thursday morning wondered why law enforcement efforts weren’t directed at heroin or methamphetamine, or at the huge plantations being grown in Mendocino National Forest, where the environmental impact have been great. And again, why don’t these able-bodied public servants suit up and help with the fire effort, where they can actually do some good.
At a glance: Operation Southern Sweep
Value of pot seized: $25-60 million
Number of plants confiscated (reportedly): 10,000
Weapons: 30 firearms, including fully automatic weapons
Federal warrants served: Shelter Cove, 7; Whitethorn, 4; Redway, 4; Ettersburg, 1; Garberville, 1; Miranda, 2; Phillipsville, 1; Arcata, 1 and McKinleyville, 2; plus four served at two properties: one in Southern Humboldt, the other in Northern Mendocino County. Two state warrants.
Investigation length: Two years
Charges filed: None to date
Courtesy of the Eureka Times-Standard
Nola Evangelista for CelebStoner, June 28