Northern California

Merced County sheriff will continue to pursue illegal grows

Merced County residents no longer face misdemeanor criminal charges for small amounts of marijuana, but sheriff’s deputies continue chopping down thousands of marijuana plants each year hoping no blood will be shed at large operations run by criminal organizations.

“The reason we are so aggressive in taking care of marijuana cultivation is because of the violence that comes with it,” Sheriff Vern Warnke said. “We’re not going to let up, even though legalization is on the horizon.”

Proposition 64 passed by voters last year legalized recreational marijuana, and earlier this summer Gov. Jerry Brown and other lawmakers agreed on a plan to blend recreational and medical marijuana laws. State agencies also are working to build regulations for licensing marijuana businesses in 2018. Until then, marijuana cultivation is regulated at the local level.

“Prop 64 changed the dynamics of how people perceived pot,” Warnke said. “Pot is still a dangerous drug, and it’s still a very profitable drug. That’s why people want to plant it. The large scale operations are the ones we’re targeting, not those that have stayed in compliance with the county’s regulations.”

Sgt. Ray Framstad said he hopes the federal government will decide how to enforce marijuana regulations nationwide. If not, banning outdoor cultivation altogether in Merced County would help deter the violence, he said. Differences in federal, state and local guidelines make it difficult for people to understand and follow the law.

Warnke said it’s clear the large scale operations are strictly for profit.

“Organized crime is coming in and taking advantage of the lack of education of California voters as to what’s really going on,” Warnke said.

And, historically, these large operations have attracted violence and mayhem.

Tim Fadgen, a 47-year-old Oakhurst resident, was shot and killed Tuesday morning on his property, the Madera County Sheriff’s Office reported. His death appeared to be a result of an argument over an illegal marijuana operation on his property, the sheriff’s office said. Deputies were searching for three suspects.

On July 1, deputies dismantled a $1 million operation in Stevinson. Deputies found five makeshift greenhouses about 250 feet long and 17 feet wide that were used to grow more than 700 cannabis plants.

A trailer and garage on the property also were converted to processing and drying rooms. There, deputies found about 75 pounds of processed marijuana. The man running the operation was from San Bernardino and rented the property from an owner who believed medical marijuana recommendations made the operation OK.

“Within a week of closing it down, the owner received threats. Several incidents were reported by neighbors where the house was shot up,” Framstad said. “The owner of the property contacted law enforcement because he feared for his and his family’s safety.”

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In October 2015, one man was shot to death and two others were injured in what Warnke described as a “drug deal gone bad” in the Beachwood area. Numerous marijuana plants were found in the backyard of the home, and investigators believe the violence was related to the black-market crop.

In 2014, a missing Los Angeles man’s remains were found in a shallow grave outside of Winton near a large-scale marijuana grow where deputies found evidence of a gunfight.

From January to the end of July, sheriff’s deputies shut down 100 illegal marijuana operations that produced more than 35,000 plants and nearly 2,500 pounds of processed or finished marijuana, Framstad said. Most of those operations were outdoor and deputies confiscated more than a dozen weapons during their investigations.

The county’s ordinance allows 12 outdoor marijuana plants and six indoor plants for people with medical marijuana licenses. Allowing six indoor plants per household should produce enough marijuana for those who use it to treat medical conditions, Framstad said.

The harvest season for large-scale marijuana operations is typically in the fall months of September and October.

Starting in spring, the sheriff’s office sends up a plane a couple times a week for patrol, and from the air, large outdoor operations are easy to spot. Often times, the sheriff spots the operations from the air himself.

If they appear to be operations run by criminal organizations, deputies will write search warrants before going to shut down the operations.

The typical marijuana operation will be located at a vacant house rented out for the marijuana growing season. No one lives in the home, and deputies will find a couple of people on-hand to tend to the marijuana plants. Many times deputies will find marijuana being processed in a shed.

The risk for growers is relatively low, Framstad said. One marijuana operation can produce hundreds of thousands of dollars, although most times deputies can only cite the grower for cultivation, a misdemeanor.

“They’re arrested if there’s theft of power or weapons,” Framstad said. “Our biggest concern is the criminal element they attract and damage to residences that are rented, not the growers. People will show up during processing and harvesting and steal the finished product or cash.”

Many times, if deputies show up at a smaller operation, they’ll spend more time educating the grower than chopping down marijuana plants. Just because a doctor writes a recommendation for a certain number of plants doesn’t necessarily make it legal if you don’t follow the county’s nuisance ordinance.

“Our goal is to get out and address the criminal organizations that hide under the medical marijuana umbrella by taking down large, for-profit grow sites,” Framstad said. “At the same time, we enforce cultivation laws at residential grows by providing education and respecting the rights of growers who choose to grow 12 plants per parcel.”

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