Deputies raid Castle Rock pot farm

Sentinel staff writer

CASTLE ROCK — Deputies raided a 1-acre marijuana garden Tuesday that State Parks rangers stumbled across last month while scouting new trail sites.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s detectives believe the site and its 1,947 marijuana plants, valued at $250,000 to $500,000, are evidence of a Mexican drug cartel, according to Sgt. Steve Carney of the Sheriff’s Marijuana Enforcement Team. They also found a .22-caliber rifle, ammunition for a handgun and a campsite.

“There are a lot of gardens in that area because it’s such a rural environment,” Carney said. “People can hike in undetected and go off on hiking trails with maps that show where water sources are — because they are provided for the average hiker.”

Just after lunch Tuesday, seven rangers and sheriff’s deputies raided the garden, surprising its caretaker, described as a Latino male, about 25 years old, who was near the “well-established campsite,” Carney said. When the man realized deputies were near, he fled, dropping the loaded rifle. He remains on the loose, though he left behind evidence that may help identify him, Carney said, unless he’s undocumented and hasn’t been fingerprinted.

“Additional handgun ammunition was located inside the campsite, as well as a large amount of food, bedding material, refuse and other items necessary for long-term camping,” Carney said.

Evidence leads deputies to believe the site was being maintained by one man, and links the garden to a Mexican drug cartel, Carney said. The cartels often grow large numbers of plants with sophisticated methods — irrigation and well- manicured rows of plants carved out of a sunny, cleared hillside.

“These cartels oftentimes camp out in rural public lands and illegally cultivate thousands of marijuana plants,” Carney said. “The growers are oftentimes armed and will confront hikers and other persons who wander into these grow sites.”

Caretakers live in the gardens for the three-month growing season. It’s not unusual for them to make $5,000 per crop to water, weed and cultivate the marijuana, Carney said.

The 1-acre plot raided Tuesday had been stripped of natural vegetation, which was replaced with marijuana plants. A nearby stream had been dammed, creating a pressurized drip irrigation system to water the plants.

A bottle of pesticide sat next to the murky trickling water, which the grower also used for personal hygiene, Carney said.

Refuse, fertilizers and dead animals were found in and around the campsite.

“We found traps for rats and mice,” Carney said, “and there was a deer head with antlers up in a tree.”

The site, off an access road and not far from a trail, has been farmed for multiple years with at least one harvest completed, he said. The 3- to 5-foot plants destroyed Tuesday were about a month from harvest.

Carney asks anyone with information to call 454-3008.

Contact Julie Copeland at Castle Rock State Park pot bust

WHAT: 1,947 marijuana plants.

WHERE: Near a trail in Castle Rock State Park off Highway 35.

WHEN: Found by State Parks rangers last month; destroyed by Santa Cruz sheriff’s deputies Tuesday.

WHO: Believed to be the work of a Mexican drug cartel.

VALUE: $250,000 to $500,000.

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