Pubdate: Sat, 14 Jul 2001
Source: News & Observer (NC)
Copyright: 2001 The News and Observer Publishing Company
Author: Anne Blythe, Staff Writer


Chatham Field Held 23,000 Plants

SILER CITY -- In Chatham County, where the sheriff's department has 
suffered months of ridicule for mishandling 2 1/2 tons of marijuana, law 
enforcement officials scored big Friday when they seized nearly 23,000 pot 

Not taking any chances after having 5,000 pounds of confiscated marijuana 
stolen, sheriff's deputies hacked down the plants -- some of which were 9 
feet tall -- trucked the uprooted plants to the landfill and burned them.

"This was a pretty big deal for us," said Randy Keck, Chatham chief deputy. 
"This has been our best year so far, as far as finding marijuana. This just 
makes it even better."

The state Attorney General's Office said the seizure was one of the largest 
in North Carolina history.

A pilot working for the State Bureau of Investigation spotted a field of 
marijuana on a routine air search Thursday.

Chatham County investigators were alerted and went out late that afternoon 
to a remote wooded property off Carolina Hill Road about seven miles east 
of Siler City.

They found a field of marijuana plants at the base of a ravine. That night, 
while guards were posted around the property, a team of SBI and Chatham 
sheriff's investigators made a plan.

At 8 a.m. Friday, 30 officers -- including National Guard troops and U.S. 
Forest Service officials -- charged through the wooded property with 
machetes and other tools. The Forest Service cut a road through the woods 
with a bulldozer.

The investigators found several fields of the prohibited plants, ranging 
from 2-inch seedlings to 9-footers. Several deputies compared the thickness 
of growth to that of a rain forest.

They even found a camp site with a tent, fresh eggs and hot dogs, as if 
someone had recently been keeping watch over the crop.

Keck said the plants were counted individually as they were loaded into a 
camouflaged National Guard truck. Investigators circled overhead in 
helicopters and planes throughout the day.

Joining them was Attorney General Roy Cooper.

"Stopping the illegal drug supply at its source is an important battle for 
law enforcement to fight," Cooper said in a prepared statement. "This shows 
how effective our SBI aerial marijuana eradication program can be."

Initially, state investigators estimated that more than 9,000 plants were 
growing on the secluded acres. By late Friday afternoon, they had 
discovered 11,000 seedlings in nearby plant beds, and other full-grown 
plants, pushing the total number to 22,999, Keck said.

That amounts to nearly one-third of the amount of marijuana confiscated in 
North Carolina this year.

Through June, law officers had seized 47,953 plants, according to Cooper's 
office. But just this week, agents had already seized 1,097 plants before 
Friday's bonanza in Chatham.

No one has been charged with growing the marijuana. Authorities said a 
timber company owns the land. "The mere fact that something's on your land 
doesn't mean it's yours," Keck said. "We have to have probable cause."

As the news spread through the county Friday, people in convenience stores 
and gathering places weren't sure whether the sheriff's department had 
saved its reputation.

The sheriff's department's troubles began in February 2000, when deputies 
stored 4,840 pounds of marijuana in an Army surplus truck -- the only place 
big enough to hold the evidence, Sheriff Ike Gray said.

Last September, deputies noticed three-fifths of it stolen. They buried the 
remaining pot at the old county landfill. Officers later discovered that 
the buried marijuana also had been stolen.
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