The investigation started this spring when a group of bear hunters came upon the grow site and reported it to local law enforcement. On June 15, 2011 a multi-agency team, assisted by the Oregon State Police (OSP) SWAT team and air support from the Oregon Army National Guard, served a search warrant on U.S. Forest Service public lands in a remote section of northern Wallowa County. When officers raided the site, six suspects were taken into custody and investigators got a good look at the size, magnitude and potential environmental damage related to the grow operation that had been ongoing for a substantial period.
Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen is urging the public to be very careful this summer while recreating outdoors, hunting, fishing, and camping because of the potential problems they may encounter while unexpectedly coming upon a potential grow site and those people involved with the illegal activity. In the past, people arrested at many outdoor grow sites have been armed with weapons to protect themselves from police and others.
"The resources, time and effort these outdoor growers are committing to avoid detection and protect the site pose a significant risk and danger to the public and law enforcement officers," said Steen.
La Grande Police Sergeant John Shaul, team supervisor of the Union/Wallowa County Drug Team, described the outdoor grow as "staggering", encompassing a stretch over one mile in a ravine where growers disrupted the natural terrain with extensive terracing. Over 91,000 plants ranging in size from starter plants to 10 inches were eradicated over a two day period. The plants were concealed in several separate pods developed by removing trees and underbrush to camouflage the grow site, and "miles" of plastic irrigation tubing was also found. Due to the ongoing investigation the exact location of the site is not be released at this time.
"Many people would be outraged at the damage to our public lands caused by illegal marijuana growers," said Shaul.
Investigators found campsites and numerous weapons, including semi-automatic long barrel firearms and handguns. Food, water and other supplies were found at campsites that could sustain the growers for several weeks.
Steen pointed out the potential public safety problems and the dangers associated with chemicals and pesticides used to grow illegal marijuana. In some cases, environmental and natural resource damage is caused by stream diversions, vegetation damage, trash, pollution, and the use of herbicides and pesticides.
"An extensive amount of trash including tubing, plastic planter containers, herbicide and other toxic chemicals were dumped along a river's edge," said Steen.
The United States Forest Service, with the assistance of the OSP Fish & Wildlife Division, is going to survey the site to determine the magnitude of environmental damage, needed resources to clean up the site, and how to rehabilitate the altered terrain.
Arrested and lodged at the Union County Jail related to this investigation were:
* ARTURO B. BARRERA, age 26
* FEDERICO R. CARRASCO, age 24
* CHRISTIAN R. GONZALEZ, age 28
* FREDY F. MONTES, age 32
* JESUS A. SANCHEZ, age 21
* AUDEL C. SOTO, age 29
Investigators have not confirmed yet where the men are from. They are all currently held on charges of Unlawful Manufacture and Possession of Marijuana. The criminal investigation is ongoing, to include possible charges related to environmental crimes.
Law enforcement officials believe it is critical for the public be aware of the potential dangers and signs related to suspected outdoor marijuana grow sites. People are urged to pay attention and be aware of possible signs of illegal outdoor marijuana growing activity including:
* Seeing vehicles and people in unusual locations, at odd hours, or dropping off or picking up people in remote areas
* Coming across a vehicle or person with an unusual supply of camping equipment or other items such as fertilizer, PVC pipe, irrigation hoses, small plastic planters, propane tanks, tents or tarps and gardening tools
* Unexpected encounters with people armed with firearms outside of hunting season or non-traditional hunting areas
* Finding fish kills in streams or large amounts of garbage in a remote area with empty bags of fertilizer or other chemicals, piping, plastic planters, and camping equipment
* Seeing people in remote areas starting to landscape or clearing land
* Noticing foot paths or trails that seem heavily used in non-traditional hiking or trail areas
"If you come across possible marijuana grow site, make a mental note of your location and any landmark, GPS coordinate, or other identifiers to help police easily find it. Exit the same way you entered the area and be watchful for any unexpected surprises or people, then call police," said Shaul.
State, county, local and federal law enforcement agencies involved in Wednesday multi-agency operation were:
* Wallowa County Sheriff's Office
* La Grande Police Department
* Union/Wallowa County Drug Task Force
* Oregon State Police SWAT Team
* Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team
* Wallow County Search & Rescue
* Enterprise Police Department
* United States Forest Service Law Enforcement
* Union County Sheriff's Office
* Baker County Narcotics Enforcement Team
* Oregon Army National Guard
* Oregon State Police Marijuana Eradication Team (A trained group of state troopers utilized by the Department and available to outside law enforcement agencies during the summer months to assist with the eradication and investigations related to outdoor marijuana grows)
Site Photographs - Union/Wallowa County Drug Task Force Suspect Photographs - Union County Sheriff's Office