July 22, 2008

Kern Pot Farm Scarred Land Preserve; 6 Held

By Matt Weiser, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

Jul. 22--California wildlife officials have arrested six men on suspicion of growing marijuana valued at $16.5 million in a state-owned ecological preserve in the Sierra Nevada.

Two of the arrests occurred Saturday during a raid at Canebrake Ecological Reserve, near Lake Isabella in Kern County.

California Fish and Game wardens arrested two men inside the reserve who were allegedly tending a marijuana plantation containing 4,106 plants, said Patrick Foy, a game warden and a spokesman for the department.

The men fled when contacted by wardens, but were caught.

A simultaneous raid at two homes in Tulare County netted four more suspects, all believed to be a support crew who supplied materials for the growing operation. Sheriff's officials in both counties assisted with the raids.

"It's unusual that we caught not only the growers themselves, because so often they run away and you can't catch them, but we also caught the suppliers," said Foy.

The Canebrake preserve is an example of a sensitive natural transition zone between the Sierra Nevada and Mojave Desert. It is a haven for wildlife because it includes Fay Creek, a year-round water supply. The site is remote and rarely visited.

Foy said the illicit crop had an estimated street value of $16.5 million. Officers also confiscated 9.5 pounds of processed marijuana.

In addition, the suspects allegedly violated a host of environmental laws and caused significant disturbance to about 20 acres of land in the preserve.

Fay Creek had been dammed in at least two places, Foy said, to create a water supply for the marijuana grove. Erosion, pesticides and fertilizers had disturbed the area, which included about 10 acres of cultivated land as well as numerous camp sites and work areas. Much of the area not devoted to marijuana plants, he said, had been denuded of vegetation and strewn with trash.

"Once we had everything clear and got the suspects out, we brought in environmental scientists and biologists, and even an archaeologist, to start immediate restoration of the site," Foy said.

Arrested were Juan Villafana Cornejo, 27, and Eduardo Villafana Cornejo, 31, both of Seville, in Tulare County; Rigoberto Galvan, 28, Jose Luis Gomez, 20, and Andres Aeriola, 39, all of Orosi, Tulare County; and Eduardo Villafana Osornio, 58, of Tijuana, Mexico.

Gomez and Aeriola were caught in the preserve, and both reportedly were armed at the time. None of the suspects is a U.S. citizen.

All the suspects are in custody in Tulare County Jail and face charges including cultivation and possession of marijuana for sale, resisting arrest, illegal possession of firearms, altering a stream bed and disturbing an ecological preserve.


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