WASHINGTON COUNTY – What happens when a multi-agency task force targets a marijuana grow under high cover and invites a media corps along for the bust? This is one embedded reporter’s telling for the reader’s vicarious experience.
Friday morning at dawn a force of 60-70 agents from multiple agencies (listed at the close of this report) set out on foot west of Interstate 15 at mile marker 30 into the Browse region of the Dixie National Forest. Their mission was to locate and secure a large marijuana grow that had been sighted through helicopter surveillance some days earlier.
An hour or so later, a second group followed, single file, a pace behind and keeping radio communication with the advance team to ensure the area ahead had been secured and was safe to enter. This group consisted of eight members of Utah’s press corps representing five Utah news services, a crew from the forest service, two SWAT team members flanking the group front and back, and one Washington County Sheriff’s detective charged with the perhaps inglorious task of escorting the media for a firsthand experience of “grow busting.”
This was a sensitive operation culminating three years of investigation and implemented undercover resources and stealth expertise; media was admonished that the mission could not be published until permission was given, face photos and identification of agency personnel involved in the action were not to be released to the public; and acceptance of the invitation was an implied agreement with those terms.
The morning was almost cool and the trek started from a gravel road. Most of the media group expected the “field trip” to take four-five hours round trip at most. It took 12.
Despite admonitions to take plenty of water and food, most did not. Despite being forewarned that the terrain would be rugged and difficult, several opted to carry large camera bags and tripods. Despite the implied agreement to keep a lock on publication of the mission to insure its success and the safety of agents involved, at least one media person tweeted early on in the media’s hike that the action was in play. Foolish? Ambitious? Questionable character?
Trails were scarce and evidence of any human presence in the area was virtually nonexistent. Our expedition took us in serpentine zigzags through deep ravines, steep climbs up and over ridges, crunching through manzanita, juniper and stiff brush and bush, slogging through waters as tan as the khaki apparel worn by our SWAT escorts.
As the morning bloomed, the weather grew increasingly humid due to recent rains and a Southern Utah monsoon effect more moist than usual. We slid and slipped, tromped and trudged, got scratched and bled, we sweated. There were laughter and low whispers, even an occasional expletive as deadwood branches snapped at us from trees scorched by fires of years past, protesting our brash incursion through their habitat.
Reporters aided one another, sharing loads, finding walking sticks, joining together as a team with those whom we compete against in our professional lives. It’s fair to say that media bonded for a day and saw a little bit of each other’s heart, spirit and character.
Communication with the primary task force gave our escorts reports that encouraged us onward. “They’ve found a huge grow, some plants 10 to 12 feet high,” they said at one point. Our SWAT agent said he hadn’t seen plants that tall in years. Eventually, we saw the Utah Highway Patrol helicopter servicing the mission flying overhead not far beyond us. We forged ahead.
Our first sighting of “Mary Jane” was a lower grow across a canyon from the larger grow. We reached it around 12:15 p.m., four-and-a-half hours since our hike began. The lower grow is the one that was open enough to be spotted by helicopter surveillance, and it gave rise to the day’s action. “They got greedy and we got lucky,” one DEA agent said.
The lower grow had evidently not been tended for some time; except for a few large bright green plants remaining, most were browning and stripped of all but bud clusters.
What revealed order and attention to detail was the intricately engineered irrigation system. There was a main PVC line running between plants, with offshoot tubing to each plant set within its own dirt well.
Water source is key to a marijuana grow – and agents said that it can be an aid in locating them. Find the water source and sometimes you find a grow. In this case, they found the grow and they had yet to find the water source on Friday. That search would continue through the weekend.
The negative impact on water sources, whether by diversion, depletion or contamination, is one problem the grows create. And the fertilizer. Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher said that loads of fertilizer brought in for the grow also contaminate the environment.
Those tending the grow – usually two people except during harvest time a DEA agent said – had abandoned the area, apparently within a couple weeks of the day’s action. It was unusual to not have a “chase” to detain the “gardeners,” one SWAT agent said, and chases could include gunfire. Our escorts were well armed.
Various people speculated that the growers had been spooked, possibly by the seizure of a large grow in Iron County in the past month or by overhead air activity during recent wildfire fighting. It was actually a helicopter surveillance that fortuitously spotted the lower grow.
As our media expedition crossed the last canyon to the primary grow site, dehydration and hunger were taking their toll. But at the top of our last inbound climb, we arrived to multiple huge piles of the plants and irrigation tubing all bundled to be air-slinged out. It invigorates you somehow, when you find the prize you’ve been seeking.
The UHP Helicopter flew in and out for hours collecting sling after sling of the loot while we and 60-some agents ate sack lunches and quenched our thirsts with repast airlifted in for us.
The plants had been thriving in and amidst all sorts of growth, much like what we had been bushwhacking. They were not neatly planted like a fruit tree grove. One agent said that planting in and under other growth is one way the growers camouflage their sites. But it did not seem to impede the speed with which the task force could uproot and collect the plants. They had finished amassing 3,600 plants by the time the media team arrived, with only a couple hours lead.
The growers’ campsite and kitchen were dismantled, pop-up tents, sleeping bags, propane tanks, camp stove, screens for drying the product, wires and strings stretching here and there between trees like clothes line. There were considerable amounts of accumulated garbage. All of this was bagged for extraction, some for further examination.
But, the most telling and unusual conversation pieces found at this particular grow were a leg cast in the shape of the bend of a knee, and crutches. Both showed a fading paint of green, apparently for camouflage. The cast had pictures of what appears to be a machine gun and a marijuana leaf, and words marked on it, “Corazon,” “Michoaca” and “F.M.” One DEA Agent said that Michoaca is a town in South America and the other references “La Familia,” a known drug cartel. She said that these items were quite a find because they show what lengths these growers will go to, what dedication they have. The sheriff said it is known that this grow is connected with an organization, and the investigation is ongoing.
As the scene was being cleaned up and the contraband removed, teams of SWAT and the media safari, minus one transported by helicopter due to an orthopedic stress, headed out on foot for the return trek. Some headed for a peak, intending to follow the ridgeline back to a road. Another group split off and opted for an “as the crow flies” approach, up and over and down and up peak after peak. Anyone familiar with the classic traveling song, “The Bear Went over the Mountain,” knows the moral of that story – there is always another mountain.
The mettle of the media has to be commended. The SWAT and sheriff’s detective escorts said that this was the most arduous hike in-and-out that they had encountered in pursuing a grow. But they are physically trained and tuned for this kind of a trek. Media? Not necessarily, although some do a fair amount of hiking Utah’s wild lands. Our group suffered some bouts of dehydration with accompanying chills, lactic acid locking up quads and calves, light-headedness and heat exhaustion, but everyone pressed on relatively cheerfully with resolve – and none got hurt.
It was a kind of “stress test” for the media corps and some wondered tongue-in-cheek if it was revenge by design that we had been invited on this mission.
In the end, that UHP helicopter airlifted out almost as many groups of people as it had swags of contraband. The agent taking headcount said only two of the entire 60-70 involved made it all the way out on foot.
What the “walk-along” experience gave media, that no press release ever could, was a sense of the magnitude and complexity of these operations. The manpower involved and the coordination among them was fine-tuned, enthusiastic and able. Their patience in approach to insure a successful and safe seizure was stealth and timed. Their attention to cleaning up the site was appreciable.
The evident devotion of the criminal growers was also eye-opening; if it took the media expedition five hours to cross about four miles of terrain to reach the grow, we had to wonder what determination it took for “the gardeners” to do so and to live there for years – one of them perhaps with a broken leg, unless he was attended to at the site. The living set-up was messy, rudimentary and scant, among not-a-few ants. There were no creature comforts. Yet, agents said that intelligence suggests the grow has been operational in this remote area for years. St. George News reporter Dallas Hyland said what many were thinking to some degree or another: “I almost respect the ‘sonofabitch’ that would live such an existence, not to mention cross the terrain in a cast and on crutches.”
But there could be no respect for the destruction and misuse of land that had invaded the region, or for the organizations that perpetuate this kind of activity. The machine gun etched on the cast gives warning; these growers will not welcome unwitting visitors. The sheriff said he will not stop his pursuit of them, the growers and their organizers, “we don’t want them here,” he said. And there was no question he meant it.
Note: Represented among the task force were the Washington County Sheriff ‘s Department, Utah Highway Patrol, Metro Narcotics Salt Lake City Drug Enforcement Agency, police from the cities of St. George, Ivins, Washington and Hurricane, the U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management.
See also St. George News Aug. 24 story on the raid.
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Twitter: @JoyceKuzmanicCopyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2012, all rights reserved.