When a Ketchum man stumbled upon a large marijuana growing operation in Blaine County late last month on the southern lower slopes of Galena Summit, he heard a shot fired as he was leaving the area.
Sheriff Gene Ramsey said in an interview Friday that he doesn’t think the pot growers were shooting at the man, but only firing a warning shot. Nonetheless, the incident demonstrates the potential for danger when members of the public come across illegal marijuana-growing operations in national forests and other public lands.
The man, who was scouting the area for elk hunting, reported his discovery later that same day, Aug. 22, to the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office and brought a handful of marijuana leaves along with him to verify his story.
“He’s going along and all of sudden he realizes he’s in a marijuana field up to here,” said Ramsey, pointing to his chest. “And he said, ‘It makes me mad that they were growing it on Forest Service land.’
“I would like to just caution people, if they do come upon a grow, that they back out of it and report it,” Ramsey said. “It really helps us to have a good location, but the first thing I want them to do is back out of it.”
The sheriff’s department mobilized throughout the day and by 3 a.m. the following morning officers were at the scene with different teams to arrest the culprits, locate and begin eradication of the marijuana, and to serve as backup in case the situation led to a chase and gunfight.
Later that morning, a multijurisdictional law enforcement contingent, comprising about 60 officers, was on the scene locating the marijuana and removing it for destruction. In all, 11,169 plants were found on six different growing plots covering a total area of about five acres. The growers were not found but Ramsey said investigation continues into trying to identify and arrest them.
In addition to Blaine County officers, Ramsey received assistance of the Gooding and Camas county sheriff’s offices, Ketchum police, Sun Valley police, Idaho State Police and the Idaho National Guard. Hailey police were on standby in case needed.
Federal involvement included the Idaho U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
Wendy J. Olson, U.S. attorney for Idaho, announced discovery of the Galena grow at a press conference later the afternoon of Aug. 23. She said its eradication was part of a federal effort called Operation Mountain Sweep that has been under way since July 1 to eliminate illegal marijuana-growing operations on public lands in Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
Olson said the operation since its beginning had found and eliminated more than 578,000 marijuana plants with an estimated street value of about $1 billion.
Olson noted that elimination of marijuana grows on public lands is now a national priority.
“The American people should be able to safely and lawfully enjoy our treasure of public lands in Idaho and throughout the West,” Olson said. “Criminals who conduct illegal marijuana grows endanger the public in three ways: first by endangering citizens using public lands, second by endangering our natural resources and third by growing marijuana which they then intend to richly profit from by selling illegal drugs to our citizens.”
Including the Galena grow, about 48,000 marijuana plants have been eradicated in Idaho in Operation Mountain Sweep, with the majority discovered in Caribou County in southeast Idaho.
The Galena grow was only the second illegal growing operation found in Blaine County in the past six years. In 2006, about 2,000 marijuana plants were found and destroyed from a growing operation near Little Wood Reservoir north of Carey.
Two suspects were arrested at that grow site. One, Eduardo Mariscal-Castellon, who was then 32 and identified as an illegal immigrant from Mexico, pleaded guilty in 2007 to trafficking in marijuana and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The second suspect, Leobardo Vega, then 31 and identified as a legal U.S. resident, jumped bail in 2007 after posting $20,000 bond and still remains at large.
Ramsey said the plants found at the Galena site were in various stages of growth. Some were only a few feet high while the majority was at least waist high. Others were nearly mature, while some had already been harvested and were drying. Had all the plants been harvested at maturity, Ramsey estimated the street value at more than $27 million.
He said the growers were utilizing dammed up streams or springs to irrigate the crop, with buried PVC pipe running from the source and branching off to various grow areas to provide constant drip irrigation. Ramsey said the sophistication of the growing operation suggested that it had been used in previous years.
Ramsey declined to speculate on who the growers might be, but said police monitoring local CB traffic while the plants were being eradicated picked up voices using only Spanish.
“I can’t put my finger on anything that says it’s linked to organized crime,” Ramsey said. “It had sophisticated irrigation systems, it had fertilizer and it takes a lot of money to put that together. My gut tells me that it is linked to an organized cartel.”
Terry Smith: email@example.com