Raid nets 10,000 pot plants

With machetes draped from the belts of their camouflage pants, deputies from the Jackson County Sheriff's Department trudged up the side of a hill deep in the Applegate Valley to remove a marijuana plantation linked to a Mexican drug ring.

Deputies pulled the large knives from their sheaths and chopped the 6- to 8-foot plants at their bases, leaving them strewn across the steep ground. The deputies then stacked the plants in bundles of 25 for removal by helicopter.

The deputies, along with the Oregon State Police, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and U.S. Forest Service personnel, spent Tuesday trampling through dense forest to remove an estimated 10,000 marijuana plants believed to have been grown by a cartel.

The plants, which were noticed by a spotter plane over the weekend, were likely connected to a raid Friday, said Sheriff Mike Winters.

A SWAT team entered the forest at daylight to gather evidence and make sure the area was clear of growers, who have been known to carry assault rifles.

"It's a cartel grow," Winters said. "They go in first and search for any known suspects or booby traps or anything we might run into."

Sheriff's deputies, who voluntarily enlisted for the eradication team, waited around the base camp at Flumet Flat until just after 12:30 p.m. With the area declared clear by the SWAT team, they drove to the Beaver Creek area and hiked 200 yards into federal forestland and another 200 yards up the hill to reach the plantation.

The steep terrain made the removal of the plants a difficult task, said Jackson County Undersheriff Rod Countryman, who had a semiautomatic rifle around his neck.

"The SWAT team handled this one as if it was occupied," Countryman said. "They moved in an attempt to arrest the individuals. They're tough to catch because they see the helicopters and they figure we're not too far and move out."

No arrests were made Tuesday, though the DEA has leads stemming from other removals, Countryman said.

At the edge of the plantation, deputies passed through a kitchen set up by the growers and followed a series of small black hoses leading to the bright emerald-green plants.

With a brown tarp serving as a ceiling, the kitchen had a box of cereal labeled in Spanish and a can of SPAM Lite.

Socks were strewn over a clothesline to dry, and a brown flannel shirt was draped in a tree. Underwear sat soaking in a bucketful of soapy water.

An empty box of Miracle-Gro rested under one of the plants.

Two separate crops were partially hidden under the tree line. A small garden, with an estimated 1,500 plants, was discovered first. The sheriff's deputies followed the black irrigation hoses to the larger harvest.

"That's the only way we found this one," Countryman said. "They're getting water from the creek."

With sweat pouring off their faces, the eradication crew piled the bundles into one large group. After about two hours, a helicopter, contracted from Burl Brim Excavation Inc., dropped down a net and the deputies piled the marijuana onto it.

Once secured, the plants were flown back to the base camp. The process would continue well into the evening.

Some of the marijuana will be kept by the DEA for evidence, while the majority of it will be destroyed, Countryman said.

Sgt. Andy Davis, leader for the eradication team, said it was an above-average-sized crop.

"We make sure we get an accurate count of it then put it in the helicopter and yard it off to DEA," Davis said.

Winters said marijuana-growing operations are prevalent in Southern Oregon and northern California.

"It's not just Jackson County. It's a regional problem," he said. "Siskiyou County and Del Norte County, they're working on the same issues."

On average, a pound of marijuana wholesales for $3,500 and retails for $5,000. During Friday's raid, the sheriff's department pulled out more than 30,000 plants.

"The 32,176 plants produced 5 tons, 10,000 pounds," Winters said. "Each mature plant produces about a pound. They do a pretty good job growing it, needless to say."

The department's eradication effort, which began nine days ago, is expected to continue well into the fall.

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