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26 charged in year-long crackdown on marijuana grows

Published On: Apr 24 2014 01:24:54 PM CDT
Updated On: Apr 24 2014 01:38:13 PM CDT

SXC

REDDING, Calif. -

The results of a yearlong, multi-agency law enforcement operation that targeted marijuana cultivators and distributors in Shasta and Trinity Counties were announced Thursday by United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner, Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko, and Trinity County Sheriff Bruce Haney.

The operation, entitled "Operation Safe Counties," specifically targeted individuals and groups in Shasta and Trinity Counties involved in the cultivation of marijuana on public lands, as well as those cultivating marijuana on private property and distributing their product throughout California and the United States through the use of couriers, the United States Postal Service, and even private aircraft.

As a result of these investigations, 16 defendants have been charged by the U.S. Attorney's Office with federal felony drug offenses, and 10 more have been charged by the Shasta County District Attorney with drug and environmental crimes. In the course of the operation to date, nearly 60,000 marijuana plants, over 2,100 pounds of processed marijuana, 70 firearms, and more than $1 million in United States currency were seized. Several investigations started as a result of Operation Safe Counties are still underway.

U.S. Attorney Wagner said: "The use of public lands in Shasta and Trinity County for the commercial cultivation of marijuana poses a threat to members of the public who own and use those lands and to the land itself. The use of private lands to produce marijuana for sale in other states, often involving weapons and potential violence, violates federal law and creates dangerous conditions here in Northern California. Along with our state and local law enforcement partners, we are committed to combatting those crimes."

Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko stated: "The focus of law enforcement's efforts are criminal marijuana operations. The illegal production marijuana has significantly expanded in recent years. Illegal marijuana operations continue to be an imminent threat to our environment, our community, and to our citizens. A collaborative effort of federal, state, and local agencies is a force multiplier against not only against these operations, but against the environmental damage on public and private lands.

Trinity County Sheriff Bruce Haney stated: "I would like to thank United States Attorney Ben Wagner, and the federal, local and state law enforcement agencies that assisted the Trinity Sheriff's Office with Operation Safe Counties last August. Like many communities, Trinity County has been overwhelmed by commercial marijuana grows hiding behind the Compassionate Use Act, Prop 215."

"Though there are some legitimate medicinal users of marijuana, law enforcement, members of the community, and the growers themselves know that most marijuana grown in our counties is transported and sold all over the United States. This is a violation of state and federal law. This illegal activity breeds an unsafe environment for our children and other members of our communities. The environmental damage of commercial marijuana production is also a very real concern and is beginning to become the focus of many investigations. Until society decides what to do with marijuana, we will continue to work closely with our state and federal partners to provide a safe place to live, work and visit."

One case involving an outdoor grow on public land began on June 5, 2013, when law enforcement agents conducted a raid at a marijuana garden in Shasta Trinity National Forest. Approximately 28,847 marijuana plants were eradicated. The marijuana was being irrigated with water that was diverted from nearby Big Bar Creek. Salvador Alcazar-Varelas, 28, of Santa Rosa, Calif., was found working at the site and was charged with conspiracy to manufacture marijuana and manufacture of marijuana. He pleaded guilty of the charges on April 10, 2014 and is scheduled for sentencing on July 10, 2014.

A case involving private property began in 2013, when the attention of law enforcement was directed to a rural property in Palo Cedro after many neighbors complained about the strong smell of marijuana and unusual activity in and around the subject property. An overflight confirmed an active marijuana grow in progress. A subsequent search revealed 531 marijuana plants growing at this location.

A search of John Richard Leithmann's residence revealed 73 marijuana plants growing inside. Two other individuals, Eric Cop and Mark Cop were at the Palo Cedro property at the time of the search, and both admitted to cultivating marijuana at that location. An indoor marijuana grow consisting of 108 marijuana plants was found in Mark Cop's residence. All three are charged with conspiracy to manufacture marijuana and manufacture of marijuana. They are scheduled for a status conference on May 16, 2014.

Under the umbrella of "Operation Safe Counties," nearly three dozen separate investigations were undertaken by a number of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. The federal cases are being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Michael McCoy and Christiaan H. Highsmith.