Federal agents raided about 25 Humboldt County locations linked to one group's alleged illegal drug operation in the early morning hours Tuesday.
The raids, focused mainly in Southern Humboldt, also brought agents to Arcata, where one house was reportedly raided. In Southern Humboldt, residents woke up to tales of convoys of federal agents driving through the southern part of the county, while residents elsewhere heard the news through online media and radio reports.
Federal agents from a variety of law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Agency and Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, joined in the large-scale drug bust dubbed "Operation Southern Sweep."
Federal agencies brought almost three times the number of agents -- about 450 -- as the number of law enforcement officers in the county's seven incorporated cities and the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, which total 158.
Officials rigged a base of operations at the River Lodge in Fortuna, with several large trucks carrying communications equipment parked outside.
FBI Special Agent Joseph M. Schadler said that agents will be in Humboldt County over the next few days to finish raids on 23 discrete locations and two large chunks of property.
Agents executed 27 federal warrants and two state warrants at these locations, he said. Agents served four of the 29 warrants at two large chunks of property.
The massive raids were a result of a two-year investigation by the California Department of Justice's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, connecting one group's large-scale commercial marijuana grow and distribution operation, Schadler said.
"They are not Mexican drug traffickers," he said. "They are homegrown."
Agents are not targeting medical marijuana users or growers with 215 cards, Schadler said.
The goal of the raids is to collect evidence to support prosecutions, he said, and no arrests are planned at this time.
One person was arrested Tuesday for assaulting an officer, but it's unknown whether that person will be charged, Schadler said.
Although officials wouldn't comment on where specific raids occurred, Southern Humboldt residents offered direction as to where federal agents went.
Scott Bliss, a roaster with Signature Coffee Co. in Redway, saw a line of vehicles -- he guessed there were 90 -- pass by the business in the early morning hours. "It was amazing," he said. The unmarked vehicles had mostly uniformed people inside, Bliss said, whom he first thought were going to help put out the nearby fires.
Some of the vehicles were towing all-terrain vehicles, three-wheelers and portable toilets, Bliss said, and the convoy of vehicles lasted about 15 minutes. "I've seen some convoys go by, but never anything like that," said Bliss, who has lived in the county since 1969.
According to residents in Redway and media accounts, tales of raids in Whale Gulch, Whitethorn and Briceland emerged throughout the day.
A carpenter who commutes to the Whitethorn area for his job said his was the first civilian vehicle to drive behind the federal convoy at around 7 a.m.
"It was like 10 minutes' worth of cars," said the man, who wished to remain anonymous due to the small size of the community he lives in. "I personally have worked at sites where people are taking advantage of 215s and I know they're not doing it for medical -- they're doing it for profit."
Graham Fabian, a 22-year-old clerk at the Shop Smart grocery in Redway, said customers relayed stories of federal agents knocking on their doors and asking for identification.
"They're doing their thing -- if you've got nothing to hide there's nothing to be scared of," he said.
Fabian, who grew up in Humboldt County, said he knew this day would come.
"I knew it would happen eventually," he said. "Once it gets enough popularity, they come and enforce. You can ask anyone and they know Humboldt is known for pot growing. (The feds) probably just do their sweeps one drug at a time."
South county residents also reported that federal agents conducted raids in the Island Mountain and Harris area.
Krisy Chilingarian, a clerk at an Alderpoint store, said she heard stories of Campaign against Marijuana Planting hauling several baskets of plants from the mountain.
"I've been getting phone calls all day long," she said.
She also said residents reported armed agents stopped people in the Island Mountain area and searched cars, though officials did not verify that.
Federal agents reportedly raided only one residence in northern Humboldt County.
FBI agents raided a house at 1658 Virginia Way in Sunny Brae early Tuesday morning.
Around 10 a.m., agents combed through the trunk of a gray car parked in the driveway. The car had Oregon license plates.
Equipment including lamps, triangular containers and hoses was spread across the yard.
It's unknown whether any arrests were made by agents at that time.
"I have no idea how long (FBI agents) were there," said former Arcata Mayor and Councilmember Bob Ornelas, who lives across the street from the raided house.
He stepped outside his door around 8 a.m. Tuesday morning and saw eight agents around the house across the street, he said. "You could see lots of flashing, lots of picture taking," Ornelas said.
He said he prefers neighbors to unoccupied grow houses and the sound of children over silence.
"The pattern is no one's ever home," he said regarding
the raided house.
June 25, 2008 -- Times-Standard (CA)
Feds Launch Massive Pot Sting
Agents Sweep SoHum Commercial Grows
By Sean Garmire
Motorcades of government SUVs poured through Humboldt County communities Tuesday as hundreds of federal and state agents began their search for commercial marijuana growing operations in a multi-day investigation the FBI has dubbed "Operation Southern Sweep."
The bureau's spokesman Joseph Schadler reported 450 agents with several federal agencies would be serving search warrants and collecting evidence on properties where "corporate marijuana growing operations" were suspected.
On Tuesday morning, at the operation's command center in Fortuna's River Lodge parking lot, Schadler said 27 search warrants would be executed over the course of the day, and two more are expected later this week.
He said he could not discuss what properties agents raided Tuesday, or which they had yet to investigate.
Medical marijuana dispensaries and 215 patients would not be targeted by the investigation, Schadler said. The Humboldt Cooperative, a medical marijuana dispensary in Arcata, said Tuesday evening that federal agents had not interfered with business.
"We're not here to set policy or interfere with California's compassionate use laws," Schadler said. The FBI is investigating "for-profit and corporate grow operations beyond the scope of 215."
Those alleged for-profit growing operations total some 2,000 acres of outdoor cultivation, spread across Southern Humboldt and Northern Mendocino counties, Schadler Advertisement said. Additionally, at least one home in Arcata was raided.
Federal agents on the scene of the stings were tight-lipped about their work and would not answer media questions; however the agents were observed searching properties throughout the county.
Early Tuesday, Arcata police stood ready to assist as federal agents served one search warrant at a house on Virginia Way in Sunny Brae. The federal agents carried grow lights and other equipment, as well as boxes and bags filled with evidence, into the front yard.
In Shelter Cove, at least two homes were broken into by authorities -- -- the damaged front doors scarred by police battering rams.
In the front yard of a house outside Whitethorn, a pile of uprooted marijuana plants was stacked next to rows of grow lights, a computer and an assortment of growing equipment. One agent stood in the doorway of the house, holding a clear plastic bag filled with cash, as other agents scoured the house for other evidence.
Schadler said investigators would be taking DNA evidence, seizing weapons and chopping plants as part of their evidence gathering.
Individuals suspected of involvement in the alleged growing operations were not part of Tuesday's sting, as the agencies were focused on collecting evidence and building cases against possible growers, Schadler said. But he anticipates "seeing charges later on down the line."
Although Schadler said agents were not interested in making arrests, one man was taken into police custody after reportedly assaulting an officer. Schadler said he did not know if charges would be filed.
The operation -- a result of a two-year-long investigation instigated by the California Department of Justice's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement -- started around 7 a.m. Tuesday when convoys of SUVs left the hotel parking lot.
The parking lot was transformed into a make-shift mission control center for the teams. A gray RV-sized vehicle, adorned with a radio tower and satellite, was parked in front of the hotel, and fed information to personnel on laptops and satellite phones inside.
The River Lodge was off-limits to the public, and inside numerous government agents could be seen circulating through the building throughout the day.
Schadler said agents would be in the area for "a couple days," and a hotel clerk reported their rooms have been booked through Friday.
The personnel involved are part of an alphabet soup of government agencies, which include the Bureau of Narcotics, the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration.
Local authorities like California Highway Patrol and the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office also aided in the investigation.
Sheriff Lt. George Cavinta said six deputies assisted federal agents, providing logistical information.
"It's a very rural country that they're into," he said. "You're taking a large amount of metropolitan agents and getting them adjusted to the setting in Humboldt County."
The Sheriff's Office reported it was not involved with any of the 29 warrants issued for the operation.
Schadler said he could not discuss what evidence allowed them to attain the search warrants.
In some cases, warrants have been obtained by local law enforcement using Pacific Gas and Electric Co. records to find the houses drawing noticeably more electricity off the grid, which often indicates marijuana grows.
PG&E spokeswoman Jana Morris said the company never volunteers records of any customers, but it must cooperate if authorities present search warrants.
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