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Pot raid snares $1 billion haul

SISKIYOU COUNTY, Calif. — Sheriff's deputies on Wednesday seized a record-breaking 204,993 marijuana plants — valued at as much as $1 billion — from 13 giant gardens in steep terrain northwest of Yreka.

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters, whose deputies were among those on the raid, said the plants, many of them 5 feet tall, would have had a street value of about $5,000 each. If that price were obtained, the total value of the plants seized would have been about $1 billion.

"We took a lot of money from them," Winters said. "The plants were ready to harvest. We think they would've gone in to take them within the next couple of weeks."

Police from several counties in Oregon and California worked in 100-degree heat to load the mature plants onto helicopters Wednesday.

"There were as many marijuana plants as there were pine trees around there," Winters said.

The gardens were tucked away in dense foliage near the small community of Seiad Valley off Highway 96 about 30 miles northwest of Yreka.

Nearly 100 deputies were airlifted into the area by helicopter to spend most of the day removing the plants and searching for those who tended the gardens.

"We have evidence that there were at least 30 people who lived at the site to maintain the plants," Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Susan Gravenkamp said.

The suspects fled the area before the police arrived. Gravenkamp said the agency expects to make arrests soon in connection with the gardens.

Winters believes the gardens were operated by more than one Mexican drug cartel.

"Cartels are major criminal enterprises," Winters said. "They are set up like major corporations. They are based in Mexico and have a large chain of command that reaches as far as Oregon and California."

The sheriff's office has learned about the cartels through members they have arrested in the past, Winters said.

Deputies found a .22 caliber rifle and bows and arrows at the scene, Gravenkamp said.

Two deputies were transported to the hospital for treatment of heat exhaustion, Gravenkamp said.

"There was poison oak everywhere so they had to wear long sleeves," he said.

Winters, who was at the scene, described it as hot, miserable work removing the plants.

"There's nothing fun about it," Winters said. "Some of the grade in the area was 30 and 40 percent, so it was steep and difficult to walk around in places."

The plants were taken to an undisclosed location in Siskiyou County and destroyed, Gravenkamp said.

Jackson and Siskiyou sheriff's offices often join forces to eradicate marijuana gardens in their respective counties because of the large number of officers needed for the raids and the subsequent plant pullings.

"This was only six miles over the border from our county," Winters said. "It is close enough to affect our area, so we feel it's important to deal with it even though it's in another county. A lot of Jackson County residents travel to Northern California to enjoy the forests."

The raid came as harvest season approaches for the illegal crop. That means the Jackson County Sheriff's Office will increase its air patrols for marijuana gardens in the coming weeks.

Winters said the largest garden ever taken from Jackson County was around 50,000 plants.

"This one in Siskiyou County was a huge find," Winters said. "We will keep an eye on that area to make sure there aren't any more gardens hidden in the wildlands."

Reach Chris Conrad at 776-4471 or cconrad@mailtribune.com.

A law enforcement raid turned up marijuana plants up to 5 feet tall covering the hillsides in Northern California. Submitted photo