(Update: Details of raids, plant seizures, arrests, K-9 Kim injured in fight)
Trafficked Mexican-national laborers worked for $20 a day in 'squalor'
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- An 18-month investigation of a Bend-area drug ring allegedly growing illegal marijuana to deliver around the Northwest ended in a pair of raids Wednesday on properties east of Bend and in Tumalo, with four arrests and seizure of nearly 7,000 plants with an estimated black-market value of $3.5 million.
Bend Police K-9, Kim, was injured in a fight with one man found hiding in a closet who was arrested, authorities said.
The search warrants executed around 7 a.m. by the Deschutes Count Illegal Marijuana Enforcement Team and the Central Oregon Drug Enforcement (CODE) Team wrapped a case that began with community complaints and tips about one of the grow locations, on Nelson Road. Drug agents eventually discovered a second grow site on Half Mile Lane in Tumalo.
Detectives, special agents and intelligence analysts conducted many hours of physical and electronic surveillance of the two properties, with greenhouses and outdoor grows that were dormant over the winter and resumed in the spring, Sgt. Kent Vander Kamp of the DCIME Team said in a news release Wednesday evening.
They also determined the organizational structure and identified its leaders, Vander Kamp said. A 62-year-old Bend man, who owns the Half Mile Lane location, is alleged to be one of the leaders.
A 31-year-old man associated with addresses in Pasco, Washington and Cincinnati, Ohio is still outstanding and being sought.
The Bend man was one of four arrested on charges of illegal marijuana growing at the two locations; the others were a 40-year-old Pasco, Washington man and two men, ages 25 and 46, from Michoacan, Mexico.
Four laborers were detained, identified, interviewed and later released by detectives, and refused social services and assistance. Vander Kamp said other people found at the grow sites were determined to be not associated and were released without charges.
Most of the Mexican-national laborers contacted by detectives were trafficked into the U.S. and promised $20 a day to tend the grow sites. Vander Kamp said the laborers at the Nelson Road grow site “lived in squalor. They used outdoor toilets and prepared their food in a primitive outdoor kitchen.”
During the raid on Half Mile Lane, one of the arrested men was found hiding in a closet, Vander Kamp said. Bend Police K-9 Kim was deployed to search the home and discovered the man, who fought with the dog and injured her snout during the struggle, Vander Kamp said.
Despite her injuries, the K-9 still got the man to come out of the closet, where officers arrested him. Vander Kamp said Kim “was later treated for her injuries and is resting comfortably,” while the man was taken to St. Charles Bend, treated for non-life-threatening injuries and then booked into the jail on the drug charge as well as interfering with a law enforcement animal.
The four arrested men later were released under the terms of Senate Bill 48, which took effect Friday and set new release criteria for arrested individuals, focusing on their danger to the community, instead of a set bail amount.
Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel said, "So people grow unlawfully in Oregon, to avoid having to pay taxes and the regulatory expenses, and then they ship it out of state and sell in states where marijuana is not legal. Idaho is one, we had someone selling in Georgia, someone selling in New England, and I think we had someone selling in Ohio."
Nearly two-dozen greenhouses were located at the Nelson Road site, near Bend Airport, and 10 at the Half Mile Lane site, near Three Sisters Adventist School in Tumalo.
A sheriff's detective said each greenhouse near the school had ranging from 189 to 200 marijuana plants, while the ones near the airport had roughly 250 plants in each.
He said in the state of Oregon, only four marijuana plants are allowed per household. The detective also said anything grown between 4 and 12 plants is a misdemeanor, and anything over 12 is a felony.
The multi-agency team used mobile light lab testing units to test growth samples to confirm the plants are THC-dominant, identifying them as marijuana and not hemp.
Soon after, they started removing the plants by the truckload. With the number of marijuana plants present, officials said it would likely take most of the day to clear them out.
The detective said one marijuana plant can produce a half-pound to a pound of marijuana, so just the crop grown near the school could potentially yield 1,000 pounds of processed marijuana.
Trailers, one with a shower, were parked around the greenhouses located near the school. The detective said it indicated people lived on the field, tending to the marijuana farm.
Vander Kamp said the possession of small amounts of marijuana is legal for recreational use in Oregon. However, large, unlicensed marijuana operations remain illegal. Due to these unregulated operations, they pose dangers to the public and the environment.
These commercial grown operations were located in rural agricultural areas of Deschutes County. Most of this area's residents depend on the ground or well water for their households and own agricultural ventures. In March, Governor Brown declared Deschutes County to be in extreme drought conditions and struggling with consistent groundwater sources.
Investigators have found illegal marijuana grows diverted or stolen significant water from nearby homes, commercial farms, or directly from pumps connected to underground sources in the arid Central Oregon High Desert.
For example, Vander Kamp said the Nelson Road grow site alternated between underground well water and diverted irrigation canal water while maintaining a complex watering system that supplied marijuana production. Additionally, Illegal marijuana farms often use pesticides and insecticides that threaten residential water supplies and endanger the end user, he said.
Authorities working in the field said the samples will be held in evidence for the prosecution of the crime before they’re disposed.
Hummel said drug manufacture convictions are based on three things: "Prior criminal record of the suspect, the quantity of drugs, and whether there's other ancillary factors such as whether weapons are used."
The sentence, he said, can range from a few weeks to a few years years in jail, and oftentimes the biggest penalty is criminal forfeiture.
Manufacturing drugs within 1,000 feet of a school brings an enhanced penalty upon conviction. The cases are still under investigation.
Hummel said the confiscation isn't just to enforce the law, but also to support the numerous lawful marijuana businesses within Deschutes County that comply with the state's marijuana laws.
"It's not fair to be undercut by bandits that are taking away your market share," Hummel said.
The Deschutes County Illegal Marijuana Enforcement (DCIME) program is a partnership between the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office, the Bend Police Department and the Deschutes County District Attorney's Office to address illegal marijuana activity in the county.
CODE and DCIME were assisted by the sheriff's office, Deschutes County Sheriff's Street Crime Unit, Crook County Sheriff's Office and Oregon State Police with the investigation, eradication and dismantling of the grow sites.