By Giuseppe Ricpatio

The Union Democrat

Starting on July 31, the Sheriff’s Office raided multiple illegal marijuana grows throughout Calaveras County following an investigation related to the environmental damage wrought by the pot cultivation. Over four days, the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office arrested 35 suspects and seized a total of 25 tons of marijuana (27,000 marijuana plants), 11 firearms and $7,000 in cash. The charges against the suspects include felony and misdemeanor 11358 H&S (marijuana cultivation), 182 PC felony criminal conspiracy, 148 pc misdemeanor resisting a public officer and 29800 PC felony possession of a firearm while a felon.

July 31:

  • 1300 and 1400 block of Argonaut Lane, West Point: 581 plants, 41.62 pounds of processed marijuana and one firearm seized. Three arrests: Cheng Kuang Chao, Nai Wang Chao and Thuyen Thi Nguyen.

  • 21400 block of Highway 26, West Point: 1,229 plants seized. two arrests: Nhat Tien Nguyen and Phu Minh Nguyen.

  • Eganhoff Road, West Point: 1,154 plants, 3 pounds processed marijuana and one firearm seized. One arrest: Leon L. Santos.

Aug. 1:

  • 100 block South Railroad Flat Road, Railroad Flat: 9,608 plants seized. One arrest: Juan Blanco Peralta.

  • 2500 block of Spruce Creek Road, Railroad Flat: 180 plants and 9.08 pounds of processed marijuana seized. 2 arrests: Cop Ba Ngo and Tien Nguyen.Two14700 block of Highway 26, Glencoe: 198 plants seized. 2 arrests: Cha John Xiong and Pao Jack Xiong.

  • 17200 Jesus Maria Road, Mountain Ranch: 54 plants, One arrest: Ya Vang Xiong.

Aug. 2:

  • 2200 block of Skull Flat Road, West Point: 521 plants and 3 firearms seized. Two arrests: Allan Richard Sippy and Dennis Wayne Wilkinson.

  • 8151 West Murray Creek Road, San Andreas: 678 plants and three firearms seized. Five arrests: Thao Bee, Benjamin Koumeng Her, Xiong Her, Chanh Savong Lor and Chuevang Lor.

  • Heiser Canyon Road, Copperopolis: Five arrests: Amandeo Bahena-Avilez, Sergio Castro Delgadillo, Mark Hernandez Maciel, Loan Thi Nguyen, Truc Xuanthien Tran

No confirmed date:

  • Bald Mountain Road, Wilseyville: 517 plants seized. 0 arrests.

  • 9800 block of Whiskey Slide Road, Mountain Ranch: 4,573 plants seized. 0 arrests.

  • 600 block of Smitty Lane, West Point: 770 plants seized. 0 arrests.

  • West Murray Creek Road, San Andreas: 360 plants and one firearm seized. 0 arrests.

  • North Rodesino Road, Mountain Ranch: 280 plants seized. 0 arrests.

Note: Additional arrests and marijuana seizures that were made on Aug. 3 are not included here, but are included in the Sheriff’s Office totals.

Over the past four days, the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office executed an illegal marijuana eradication campaign called Operation Terminus, arresting 35 people and destroying 27,000 marijuana plants throughout Calaveras County.

At a press conference Thursday afternoon in San Andreas, Calaveras County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio issued a warning to prospective illegal growers that the crackdown was not over.

“While terminus means the end of the line, it is not the end of the line for the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office,” he said. “Don't come. You're not welcome and we will come for you.”

In all, 23 search warrants were issued throughout Calaveras County during the four day period related to the illegal marijuana cultivation and associated environmental crimes, at West Point, Railroad Flat, Glencoe, San Andreas, Copperopolis, Mokelumne Hill, Mountain Ranch and Wilseyville.

A total of 25 tons of marijuana, 11 firearms (including some with the serial numbers removed and assault weapons), over $7,000 in cash and body armour were seized from the around 15 sites.

Captain Jim Macedo of the Sheriff’s Office began the presentation by reading from a press release and said, “we are working in partnership with allied agencies to work toward ending the
line of a large group of marijuana growers who have come into Calaveras County from
across the United States and other parts of California committing crimes and causing
significant environmental damage,” he said.

The investigation began six months ago, Macedo said, and involved the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, the California National Guard Counterdrug Task Force, California State Water Board, Central Valley Regional Water Board, Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office, California Highway Patrol and Cal Fire.

DiBasilio cited the cooperation with the environmental agencies as unprecedented compared to previous investigations, and as a way to combat the “land use issue” of marijuana grows. Property owners, he said, will often not have an affiliation with the growers, but despite repeated incidents on their land, they retain plausible deniability to what the renters do with it.

DiBasilio recalled that he visited the site of a marijuana raid last year, and returned to the same location in the days prior during Operation Terminus.

By utilizing the expertise and guidance of state water and environment agencies, DiBasilio said, property owners can eventually be held responsible for what occurs on their property.

Typically the people at the grow sites are “worker bees,” not the registrants or property owners, he said. Many of the sites hit by the eradication raids were from sites that had applied to be registered growers, but were denied.

During the press conference, DiBasilio took questions as a prepared media powerpoint displayed mugshots of the suspects, photographs of the grow sites and the amount of seized marijuana at each location.

The photographs depicted squalid and unsanitary living conditions, often accompanied by heaps of discarded garbage, foodstuffs, haphazard chemical or fertilizer preparation areas, open drainage systems, electrical generators and slipshod structures.

Some photographs purported the show the environmental impacts wrought by the illegal grow operations. Many of the sites were shown situated adjacent to or utilizing irrigation systems diverted from area waterways, while one image showed the gnarled dead forest of land scarred by the Butte Fire.

Others featured the marijuana itself: as broad swaths of plants in contained grow tents, cultivated out in open fields, or in bags as cured and prepared buds.

DiBasilio said he was unable to extrapolate the dollar value for all the marijuana plants, as many were in the juvenile stage.

“There are more sites that we will actively go after so it will be a continual thing,” he said.

The marijuana seized during the operation is destroyed, DiBasilio said, after it is buried eight feet deep in a local landfill and “turned to mush” by the pressure and dampness of the dirt.

It is not legal to burn seized marijuana, he said.

DiBasilio said the operation was probably the largest pot bust ever conducted by the Sheriff’s Office.

DiBasilio said later there was no proof that the operations were connected or gang affiliated, but added that most of them were bailing out of the Calaveras County Jail.

Many of the suspects share the same last name, or city of origin. Though some classify their residence as Calaveras County, the majority are from outside of the county, including Sacramento, Stockton, Oroville and San Jose. Some of the suspects came as far as Arizona, New York and Florida to work at the marijuana cultivation sites.

Also, despite the firearms that were seized, there were no high risk situations or weapons pointed at deputies during the raids, Di Basilio said.

“In this county we have been lucky that way,” he said, calling the arrested suspects mostly cooperative.

In attendance to represent the various organizations was California Fish and Wildlife Law Enforcement Chief David Bess, Yvonne WEst, State Water Resources Control Board attorney Yvonne West, Central Valley Regional Water Control Board Assistant Executive Officer Clint Snyder, Calaveras County District Attorney Barbara Yook, Calaveras County Deputy District Attorney Brad Jones, California Highway Patrol - San Andreas Area Commander John Warren, and Calaveras County District 3 Supervisor Michael Olivera.

DiBasilio described the contributions of the various agencies as invaluable.

Snyder also took to the podium to represent the role of the Regional Water Board in the investigative process.

The environmental damage included human waste and draining in close proximity to stream beds, illegal grading, illegal stream crossings, water rights issues, damming streams and allowing chemicals into waterways, he said.

Macedo added earlier that the watershed systems in Calaveras County had a direct impact on the water systems in the Central Valley and Bay Area.

The Mokelumne River watershed lead directly into East Bay Municipal Utility District reservoirs, and the Stanislaus River drainage system also provided agricultural water to the Central Valley, he said, reading from the press release.

Illegal pesticide and herbicide use was found at many of the properties, he said, as well as evidence of marijuana growers discharging human waste into waterways.

Other environmental violations included “substandard electrical connections, or the use of generators in areas “with dried grasses or fire fuels.”

DiBasilio confirmed that the criminal cases associated with Operation Terminus would be turned over to the Calaveras County District Attorney’s office and a specialized circuit prosecutor for review of the cases.

“As your sheriff I know you've been waiting for a long time for this to be done with widespread illegal cultivations and the problems associated” with it, he said.