Pubdate: Thu, 22 Aug 2002
Source: Redding Record Searchlight (CA)
Copyright: 2002 Record Searchlight - The E.W. Scripps Co.


Officer OK After Pot Garden Raided West Of Red Bluff

Alex Breitler Record Searchlight (Redding, CA) August 22, 2002 -- 2:12 a.m. 
RED BLUFF- A marijuana harvester shot a Tehama County sheriff's deputy in 
the arm during a raid early Wednesday at a rural pot garden, officials 
said. Deputy Troy McCoy was treated at St. Elizabeth Community Hospital and 
by Wednesday afternoon was resting at his Paynes Creek home, authorities 
said. It was the first time in recent memory that an officer was shot, said 
sheriff's Capt. Paul Hosler. "He's pretty shook up, but real happy it 
turned out the way it did," Hosler said. One man, a 23-year-old Mexican 
citizen, was in custody, and three others were missing in the foothills 
more than 10 miles west of Red Bluff. The shooting is at least the third at 
a California marijuana plantation in two years.

The gardens, often on public land, are usually staffed with guards toting 
guns to protect their multi-million dollar crops, officials say. "If it 
wasn't a cop that comes across him, it's going to be a fisherman or a 
hunter or whatever," Hosler said. "We've got armed people out on our lands, 
and yet we pay our taxes to go out and enjoy that stuff." The shooting took 
place about 6:30 a.m. as McCoy and about eight other sheriff's officials 
swarmed into the garden. McCoy and another officer were looking for 
suspects when they saw four men with guns walking from a camp toward the 

When the first man was within about 15 feet of McCoy, he saw the officer 
and raised his weapon, Hosler said. "Deputy McCoy told him to drop the 
gun," Hosler said. "He chose not to." Instead, the man fired, initiating a 
shootout. McCoy fired twice, hitting no one, Hosler said. At some point, he 
was struck in the left forearm by a shotgun pellet. Investigators were 
still trying to determine how many of the suspects fired, and which fired 
the shot that hit McCoy. The first man to fire, Nicolas Reyes Vallebo, 
turned to run but was taken into custody by another officer.

Vallebo, a Mexican citizen who lives in San Jose, was held without bail at 
the Tehama County Jail on two counts of attempted murder of a police 
officer, growing marijuana, conspiracy to sell marijuana and being armed 
while committing a felony. McCoy was taken by helicopter to the hospital. A 
seven-year veteran and one-time Corning police officer, McCoy lives with 
his fiancee and son, Hosler said. He has a police dog named Roy and is a 
resident deputy for the Manton, Mineral and Paynes Creek areas. About 30 
officers and two helicopters with infrared equipment searched the area 
Wednesday afternoon for the other suspects, Hosler said, but none had been 
found. Officials later turned their attention to yanking the garden's 
several thousand plants. Pot busts have become common in Tehama County, 
where a record 89,008 plants were seized in 2001. Officers will sometimes 
stake out gardens overnight, then move in at dawn to take the guards by 

It's a dangerous operation. "Growers may warn off intruders with flares and 
use pits filled with punji stakes, fishhooks dangling at eye level, guard 
dogs or trip wires linked to shotguns, grenades or other explosives," reads 
a 2001 report by the National Drug Intelligence Center, an agency under the 
federal Department of Justice. In August 2000, a Madera County sheriff's 
deputy at a marijuana farm shot and killed a 19-year-old harvester who'd 
raised his pistol. Two months later, a 41-year-old man and his son were 
shot and critically wounded by two men guarding a marijuana garden on the 
victims' property in El Dorado County. Most growers are not out for trouble 
and deliberately locate their gardens far away from civilization, said 
state Department of Justice spokesman Mike Van Winkle. "They're armed more 
to keep away poachers or unexpected guests," Van Winkle said. "Usually when 
law enforcement arrives, the people in the gardens know they're going to be 
dealing with people that are trained, wearing protective gear and armed as 
well as they are if not better." Officials say the Mexican nationals are 
hired by drug cartels to plant and nurture the marijuana in remote gardens, 
then harvest it and ship it out of the area. The California Campaign 
Against Marijuana Planting under the state Department of Justice has seized 
180,000 plants this year, with five weeks remaining in the roughly 
eight-week harvest season.

The record, set two years ago, was 345,000 plants. "When they select sites, 
they try to do so in areas that are far off the beaten path," Van Winkle 
said. "They don't want to encounter people." But when they do, they know 
the territory, and officers may not. "They have the home field advantage," 
Van Winkle said. Despite the danger, Hosler said, law enforcement 
operations at these gardens are important -- not so much because they 
eradicate the drug, but because growers with weapons pose a danger to the 
public. "Unfortunately it's getting more dangerous all the time," he said.
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