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Anatomy of a pot bust
Since July 1, there have been five illegal marijuana cultivation sites raided in Tehama County, and many more raids are in the works.
Just ask Tehama County sheriff's Detective Dave Hencratt - he knows all about it.
Hencratt is the department's marijuana eradication team's lead detective and, according to Tehama County Sheriff Clay Parker, one of the top five in the nation when it comes to knowledge and know-how in the world of busting illegal marijuana gardens.
The most recent of the team's garden raids took place Tuesday at Little Smokey Creek drainage off Highway 32 in Lassen National Forest, where 2,961 green and growing marijuana plants were located and eradicated.
"Some of the plants had already been harvested," said Detective Dave Greer. "However, the majority was near their harvest state of growth."
It was a good bust minus one of Hencratt's main goals — to catch the garden's growers.
"We can find and pull plenty of plants, but the real success is finding and arresting the growers, that is when we make a real impact on the problem," Hencratt said. "Instead of looking for quantity of raids and plants we are looking for quality where we get the plants and the suspects."
Catching the "bad guys" starts before July 1 when Hencratt's team is out in the hills and mountains on both the east and west sides of the county scouting the areas looking for evidence of illegal marijuana gardens.
"Usually we find them ourselves on foot or in the air or we receive a citizen tip-off," Hencratt said. "Often the growers will return to the exact same place they grew a garden the previous year. If not exactly the same, a spot close by."
Once the team has decided exactly which gardens to raid, they start the planning stage which includes ground reconnaissance.
"We scout the area looking for foot-trails, equipment, sleeping bags and a kitchen used by the growers," Hencratt said. "Finding all of those items gives us a much better chance of catching the growers. It's sometimes almost unfair to the crooks."
But finding all of those key components isn't always easy. The illegal marijuana gardens the sheriff's team goes after are usually found in extremely rugged terrain inaccessible by car and truck, and the team members have to hike into the garden sites or on occasion be dropped in by helicopter.
The team then decides whether or not to raid the marijuana garden during the day, the night and with or without a police dog.
"We really like to make the raids at night when the growers are in their sleeping bags asleep. We put on our night vision equipment and that is the safest for them and us," Hencratt said. "Plus we can catch them red-handed."
He said the team almost always uses a police dog during the raids for a number of reasons including speed, surprise element, and olfactory abilities.
Once the raid begins things happen very quickly, making it possible for the team to make the three arrests they have made so far this year.
"After the arrest the work begins of collecting the evidence," Hencratt said.
That includes taking pictures of foot-tracks, gathering any paperwork at the site, seizing any weapons like the four seized this year, and pulling and counting the marijuana plants.
"We have to record on video as we count the plants one at a time," said the detective. "That is for the purpose of prosecution. For federal prosecution and a 10-year sentence, we need to have a 10-pound sample and at least 1,000 plants of which we save the rootballs."
The rest of the plants are destroyed.
Then the team writes out their reports and logs evidence.
A single raid takes about a week's time to conduct from beginning to end, not including prosecution of any arrests. That can take years.
"There is a lot of luck involved in this business. It's hard to catch the growers, although we have made 80 arrests since 1999 and that's quite a few," Hencratt said. "We are dealing with well organized operations and once a grower is arrested he may talk but rarely tells us what we need to know."
He said the sheriff's marijuana eradication team has seized about 8,000 plants since July and will continue to conduct about one raid a week through the end of the growing season.
The team commonly works with personnel from the National Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Glenn and Shasta sheriff's departments.
Funding for the marijuana eradication division is through grant money from the Drug Enforcement Agency, National Forest Service and BLM, with the cooperative agreement the division will help enforce drug laws on state and federal jurisdictions in the county.