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 Marijuana seizures rise in S.C. corridor

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March Mellow

Join date : 2009-04-26
Posts : 209
Location : Char-Meck

PostSubject: Marijuana seizures rise in S.C. corridor   Wed Jun 24, 2009 7:51 pm

Marijuana seizures rise in S.C. corridor
The latest illegal crop found: 11,000 pot plants worth $22 million near Chester County's airport.
By Christopher D. Kirkpatrick
Posted: Wednesday, Jun. 24, 2009

Chester County authorities say they scouted a large marijuana field for several days before conducting a raid on the property Monday. A spokesman for the sheriff's office in Chester said Tuesday morning that "the investigation is ongoing," but two suspects were taken into custody. The sheriff's office and state officials say about 11,000 pot plants, some 5 feet tall, were discovered in more than a half-dozen fields, in a wooded area off Darby Road. That is a short distance from the Chester County Airport, in the northern part of the county. SLED PHOTO

CHESTER, S.C. -- Four rural S.C. counties that hug I-77 south of Charlotte have become fields of choice for marijuana growers, law enforcement officials say.

Operations that supply Charlotte and cities along the interstate have been increasing in size in recent years in Chester, York, Lancaster and Fairfield counties, state and local officials say.

The latest bust came Monday when state and Chester County authorities arrested three men and accused them of cultivating more than 11,000 marijuana plants in a half-dozen hidden fields on someone else's property near Chester County's airport.

The seized crop, with some plants 5 feet high, was estimated to be worth $22 million, or $2,000 per plant. By Tuesday, the plants were already burned and buried.

It was the third bust in the county in a year, and one of seven large-scale seizures of marijuana plants since 2007, said Chester County Deputy Sheriff Robert Cauthen.

The counties are popular growth sites because they're less populated, close to the interstate and within 50 miles of Charlotte, which is filled with potential customers, say officials with the S.C. Law Enforcement Division.

“It's easy-in, easy-out and good soil. It's very good farmland,” said Jennifer Timmons, a SLED spokeswoman. “Whether you're growing corn or marijuana, you're going to have a good yield.”

Last year, local and state authorities seized more than 30,400 pot plants in all of South Carolina. About 60 to 70 percent were found in Chester, York, Lancaster and Fairfield counties, estimated Lt. Max Dorsey of SLED. More detailed state statistics weren't available Tuesday.

A Chester County raid in August netted 11,000 plants.

Capt. Chuck Grant, who commands the narcotics division of the Chester County sheriff's office, said larger fields and more sophisticated operations with irrigation systems and onsite labor have sprung up in the area over the past several years.

Grant, who has worked in narcotics enforcement in York and Chester counties for 15 years, said the fields are more visible than in the past.

He believes the increase is attributable to drug organizations in Mexico and other parts of Latin America that might be financing the operations.

He said fields uncovered recently had tell-tale signs of outside financing, including the increased size of the crops and evidence of camps set up so workers could live around-the-clock onsite and tend to the crops when the plants were young. All of that takes resources, he said.

“They're provided the necessities by someone,” he said. “It's always on someone else's property.”

The three men arrested Monday are Latino and speak only Spanish, officials said.

The half-dozen fields at the center of Monday's arrests were first discovered last week when a state law enforcement helicopter spotted them from the air.

Authorities set up a command base at a nearby public lake access and waited for suspects to appear. The fields had some irrigation ditches and buckets left onsite to carry water for the plants from a nearby creek, Grant said.

After several days of staking out the area, law enforcement spotted a group of six men near the fields on Monday. More than a hundred agents from various local, state and federal departments set up a perimeter.

Some agents flushed them out of the woods. Two of the men were arrested immediately and three escaped. One was picked up later that night.

The men taken into custody were identified as Victor Villa, Ulver Hernandez and Arnulfo Maulcon. They are estimated to be from 25 to 40 years old, officials said. One said through an interpreter that he has lived in Charlotte at various addresses.

Authorities believe the men lived in Charlotte and traveled back and forth tending to the crop. An Observer records search could find no N.C. criminal record for the three suspects, and SLED said it would need to run fingerprints to try to confirm identities and to see whether the three have S.C. criminal records.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement could not immediately provide details of any criminal or immigration record for the three.

News of marijuana fields is becoming commonplace in Chester County, said Crystal Norton, a worker at City Barber in downtown Chester.

She said she lives across the street from where the bust took place, and the search for those who escaped arrest continued into the next morning. She said she saw law enforcement stop and search vehicles as they looked for suspects.

Four county sheriff's offices – Chester, Fairfield, Lancaster and York – joined forces in the raid with at least 14 other agencies, including the DEA, the Rock Hill Police Department and state wildlife officials.

Observer researcher Maria David and reporters Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Steve Lyttle contributed.
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