Pubdate: Sun, 13 Sep 2009
Source: Asheville Citizen-Times (NC)
Copyright: 2009 Asheville Citizen-Times
Author: Jon Ostendorff
Note: MAP archives articles exactly as published, except that our 
editors may redact the names and addresses of accused persons who 
have not been convicted of a crime, if those named are not otherwise 
public figures or officials.
Bookmark: (Marijuana)


Law enforcement agencies using fly-over operations have pulled up 
nearly $1 million worth of marijuana plants spotted on forestland in 
six Western North Carolina counties.

The August raids netted 815 plants and highlight the extent of 
outdoor marijuana cultivation in the mountains where remote stretches 
of public and private land offer easy hiding places. Three people 
face trafficking charges.

A plant can produce about a pound of pot worth at least $1,000 on the 
street. Federal agents seize about 4,000 pounds of the finished 
product a year in North Carolina, according to the U.S. Drug 
Enforcement Administration.

Authorities so far this year seized 45,000 plants statewide, which 
the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation says is on pace with last year's rate.

"It is ongoing," said Haywood County Sheriff Bobby Suttles, whose 
team found the most in the region this summer. "If it's out there, we 
are going to be looking for it."

Team Effort

Eradication teams typically work in August at the end of the growing 
season when plants are tall and easier to spot from the air.

Deputies and police work with helicopter pilots from the N.C. 
National Guard and the N.C. Highway Patrol to spot and destroy 
patches. SBI agents and the U.S. Forest Service also join the effort.

An operation last month in Haywood County started at the county 
fairgrounds, where deputies and federal police went over target areas 
with Highway Patrol pilots.

When the helicopter took flight, deputies and U.S. Forest Service 
police rode in a caravan to the first area in a remote section off 
White Oak Road.

The team that day hit several more spots with no luck. Just the week 
before, every spot they hit had been productive.

The Highway Patrol aviation unit averages about 400 hours a year on 
flights searching for marijuana. Since 2007, it has helped eradicate 
74,151 plants.

The National Guard averages 2,000 hours in the air each year helping 
state authorities find pot.

The annual operations help control the street market for the drug, 
said John Emerson, assistant special agent in charge for the DEA in 
North Carolina.

"These drugs, if not found and eradicated, will make it into the drug 
market, particularly to young adults," he said. "Marijuana is the 
most abused drug by teenagers so (these operations) play into drug 
use prevention."

Emerson said marijuana gardens are sometimes booby-trapped or 
protected by armed guards, which presents a danger to the public.

Regional Raids

Haywood County deputies seized 431 plants from patches in the White 
Oak and Fines Creek communities and off Rabbit Skin Road in the first 
of two fly-overs.

Some of the plants were 10 feet tall and had four-inch buds, the part 
marijuana users smoke.

"It was a success," said narcotics detective Mark Mease. "The 
conditions were right for growing and we had good air support."

Deputies arrested [redacted] on charges of felony manufacturing 
marijuana, maintaining a dwelling for drugs and drug trafficking.

Authorities said they found 20 plants in a garden near his house. A 
search of the property the next day uncovered an indoor growing 
operation in a shed. [redacted] admitted the plants belonged to him 
but said this was the first year he had grown marijuana, Mease said.

In Macon County, deputies and Franklin police worked with the 
National Guard to hit five locations, where they found 150 plants.

They arrested [redacted] on charges of felony manufacturing marijuana 
and misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia.

Sheriff Robert Holland said the helicopter crew spotted him in a 
patch near his home.

"He simply went over and sat down in his driveway and waited for law 
enforcement to get there," the sheriff said.

A search in Madison County turned up about 100 plants between five 
and six feet tall, Sheriff John Ledford said.

Ledford said the amount of marijuana growing outside has dropped 
dramatically in his county in recent years. He said a normal patch 
use to be 200-500 plants.

Growers Adapt

Now, he said, outdoor growers are spreading small patches across 
several acres. That makes it harder for authorities to spot the 
plants from the air. They also are taking their operations indoors, 
where they can grow more valuable hydroponic pot out of sight of helicopters.

Henderson County sheriff's deputies netted 23 plants in the county 
during a fly-over operation there. Two suspected growing locations 
are still under investigation.

In northwestern McDowell County, pilots spotted 76 plants growing on 
the roof of a house near N.C. 80.

Sheriff's Office Lt. Shannon Smith said a man ran up and pitched a 
few plants off before deputies arrived.

Deputies arrested [redacted] on charges of manufacturing marijuana 
and maintaining a dwelling for drugs.

The McDowell operation netted 110 plants.

That figure is down from the county's record, which was set last year 
when a U.S. Forest Service officer discovered a field of 4,000 plants 
off the Blue Ridge Parkway under cultivation by a Mexican drug cartel.

Smith said federal agents and deputies were able to set up 
surveillance cameras in the patch and make arrests based on the photographs.

Luck and Skill

Finding marijuana growing in the mountains has a lot to do with 
weather conditions, the time of day and the skill of the spotter in 
the helicopter.

Spotters are trained to notice signs of cultivation on the natural 
forest landscape and the different shade of green of marijuana.

Sometimes the operations just aren't productive.

A fly-over in Transylvania County turned up nothing last month and a 
brief outing in Jackson County uncovered just one plant. 
Investigators found nothing in Swain County.

Operations in Clay and Cherokee counties were scrubbed because of bad weather.

Law enforcement officers across the region are asking the public to 
call Crimestoppers or police and sheriff's offices with tips about 
marijuana patches.



Haywood County: 431 plants seized

Henderson County: 23 plaints seized

Jackson County: 1 plant seized

Macon County: 150 plants seized

Madison County: 100 plants seized

McDowell County: 110 plants seized

WNC Total: 815 plants
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake