3,000 pot plants seized in illegal grow near Rifle
September 21, 2016
Fourteen people believed to be Chinese nationals were arrested Monday in a bust of an enormous illegal marijuana grow operation between Rifle and Silt, authorities say.
A joint Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team and Drug Enforcement Agency operation discovered the large, and long-established, grow operation, which Sheriff Lou Vallario estimated to be about 30 to 40 acres on Mile Pond Road.
Sheriff's deputies discovered the operation when they became suspicious that the property was surrounded by privacy fencing and suspected something was being grown there, said the sheriff.
While observing the property, deputies saw a nearby U-Haul truck drive away. After stopping this vehicle, they discovered it was packed full of what Vallario estimated to be up to 1,000 marijuana plants.
The sheriff's office then obtained a search warrant from a U.S. Attorney.
When law enforcement raided the grow operation numerous people on the property scattered. In addition to the 12 men and two women arrested, the sheriff believes another half-a-dozen people probably escaped on foot.
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These suspects are believed to be living elsewhere in the community, as they weren't living at the grow operation itself.
Vallario said they appeared to be in the middle of harvesting. All of the marijuana was grown outdoors, and a log cabin on the property, gutted on the inside down to its plywood floors, was also being used for part of the cultivation process.
Garfield County Road and Bridge personnel later brought heavy equipment to help dig up and move close to 3,000 marijuana plants, said the sheriff. Law enforcement finished pulling up all the plants Tuesday.
"They've obviously been doing this for a while, possibly for a couple of years," Vallario said.
The U.S. Attorney may elevate this case to federal court, he said.
Vallario said he suspects that some of the people arrested at the grow operation are in the country illegally. Along with TRIDENT and the DEA, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is working the case.
Investigators are also considering the possibility that these suspects are victims of human trafficking and forced labor, said the sheriff. The investigation is also seeking the owner of the property and grow operation.
The sheriff said this isn't the only illegal grow operation in Garfield County.
Opponents of marijuana legalization, which the sheriff counts himself among, have been saying that legalization will not eliminate the black market but encourage it to move in and take advantage of the legal parts of this industry, said Vallario.
"We are not going to tolerate this anymore. Whether you're growing one plant illegally or 1,000 plants, we're going to come after you, shut you down and arrest you."