Collaborative Law Enforcement Operation Eradicates Galena Summit Marijuana Grow
“Operation Mountain Sweep” Spans Seven Western States
BOISE – U.S. Attorney Wendy J. Olson announced today that federal, county and local law enforcement officers are taking down a major marijuana growing operation near Galena Summit in the Sawtooth National Forest in Blaine County, Idaho. Law enforcement officers from the Blaine, Gooding and Camas County Sheriff’s Offices, Sun Valley and Ketchum police departments, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Drug Enforcement Administration are participating in the effort to remove an estimated 11,100 plants. Members of the public discovered the grow and reported it to law enforcement.
“Idaho is well served by the cooperative action of the federal, county and state law enforcement agencies,” said Olson. “The message is the same across all levels of law enforcement – Idaho’s public lands are off limits to drug traffickers.”
Blaine County Sheriff Gene D. Ramsey lauded the outstanding inter-agency collaboration in all phases of this operation. “The SNRA is one of the largest and most magnificent National Recreation Areas in the United States. Growing marijuana in our backyard is simply not acceptable. Law enforcement officers from multiple jurisdictions are vigorously working to arrest and apprehend those involved in this abuse of public land,” said Ramsey. “We will protect our citizens and the recreational visitors who come here to appreciate our unique environment.”
Today’s announcement is part of “Operation Mountain Sweep,” a coordinated two-month effort in Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Utah and Idaho to target large-scale, illegal marijuana grows on public land. “Operation Mountain Sweep,” announced by U.S. Attorneys in the other western states on Tuesday, is an eight-week, multi-agency and multi-state marijuana operation. Since July 1, federal, state and local law enforcement in the participating states eradicated more than 578,000 marijuana plants. The DEA estimates the street value of the marijuana to be more than $1 billion. Large amounts of trash, irrigation line, fertilizer and pesticides were also removed from illegal grow sites.
In Idaho, between July 1 and the beginning of today’s operation, state, county and federal law enforcement have eradicated more than 47,744 marijuana plants from Caribou and Jerome counties, almost all on public lands. In late July, law enforcement officers removed 42,290 marijuana plants from state public land in Caribou County. Since 2005, approximately 130,605 marijuana plants have been eradicated from public lands in Idaho.
“Marijuana trafficking organizations seek to turn our nation’s parks and public lands into their own drug havens,” said DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart. “Operation Mountain Sweep is a concerted effort to reclaim these wild and beautiful areas, and protect them from further destruction and exploitation. Thanks to the ongoing commitment of our federal, state and local law enforcement partners, we will continue to aggressively pursue and prosecute marijuana traffickers wherever they operate and hide.”
According to Olson, combating production and trafficking of drugs on public lands and Indian Country is a national priority. Of primary importance are public safety concerns and environmental damage – public lands suffer the effects of the illegal marijuana grows long after the crop is harvested. Marijuana growers remove natural vegetation, cut down trees to allow sunlight into the site, and divert streams to irrigate the land. They introduce chemicals and poisons to fertilize the marijuana and use rodenticides and insecticides indiscriminately, harming the land and waterways. Pristine public land in Idaho is being scarred and cannot recover without costly human intervention.
Forest Service, BLM and DEA law enforcement officials who have participated in Operation Mountain Sweep in Idaho stressed their commitment to working alongside local, county and state partnering agencies to investigate, prosecute and dismantle the illegal drug trafficking organizations that use public lands to further their drug trade. In a joint statement they said, “Law enforcement is committed to protecting the public and our natural resources from the devastation and destruction these illegal marijuana growing operations cause.” They stressed their concern for the public, noting that “Illegal marijuana grows can pose a threat to the safety of those who may stumble onto them.” Federal law enforcement officials advised that anyone who locates an illegal marijuana grow should immediately back out of the area slowly. They should be aware of their surroundings and not draw attention to themselves. If possible, they should attempt to gain a GPS coordinate of the approximate area or at least a good geographical description of where the marijuana grow is located. “Illegal marijuana grows are often spread out with multiple plots, camps and often lookout positions,” said Mike McKinney, U.S. Forest Service Assistant Special Agent in Charge. “People who encounter an illegal marijuana grow should ensure that they are a safe distance away before contacting law enforcement. Once in a safe location, they should immediately contact the nearest law enforcement or public land management agency.”
Olson noted that Idaho’s federal, state, county and local law enforcement have participated jointly in major marijuana grow investigations and prosecutions over the last four years. In 2009, federal, state and local law enforcement officers in Idaho participated in an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) investigation dubbed “Operation PB & J,” which involved two separate groups of marijuana growers on public lands in Idaho and Oregon. Four grows were found and eradicated in Idaho, one at Dry Buck Creek in Boise County (4,700 plants); one on South Mountain in Owyhee County (4,050 plants); one north of Ola in Gem County (8,750 plants); and three in Camas County (27,500).
Also in 2009, approximately 3,500 plants were confiscated in marijuana grows in Boise and Valley County. Francisco Avalos-Cervantes and Raul Segundo-Avalos, both Mexican nationals, were charged and sentenced in 2010 to federal prison. The two men purchased and delivered irrigation equipment, cultivation supplies, and food used by the workers who lived at the grow sites.
In 2010, law enforcement identified Jose Cardona-Ramirez, a marijuana grow supplier living in Idaho. Cardona-Ramirez purchased supplies in Idaho for the benefit of marijuana grows on public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Oregon and northern California, which totaled more than 12,000 plants. Four suspects, including Cardona-Ramirez, were charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Idaho; all pled guilty and were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
In 2011, James Roy O'Neill was sentenced for conspiring with five co-defendants, including his wife, to distribute cocaine and marijuana in northern Idaho. O'Neill admitted to growing marijuana plants at a “stash house” in Coeur d’Alene, which he later replanted on public lands.
Earlier this year, Robert Baucum, Ronald Underwood, and Raymond Hogle, of Oregon, admitted in federal court in Coeur d’Alene that between 2004 and 2011, they conspired to grow at least 1,000 marijuana plants in Idaho. The three are awaiting sentencing.
The drug trafficking organizations involved in illegal marijuana cultivation or drug trafficking operations on public lands and Indian Country are often armed and dangerous, using force and intimidation to protect their drug operations. In Idaho, at least four firearms have been seized by law enforcement while eradicating public land marijuana grows. In August 2010, Idaho law enforcement eradicated the Boom Creek marijuana grow above the city of Crouch. The grow contained more than 1,600 marijuana plants. Leonardo Villasenor-Cesar, an illegal alien from Mexico, was intercepted trying to flee the grow. He was wearing a holster containing a loaded 9mm semi-automatic pistol. The U.S. Attorney’s Office charged Villasenor-Cesar with conspiracy to manufacture 1,000 or more marijuana plants, manufacturing 1,000 or more marijuana plants, unlawful possession of a firearm and possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking activities. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison.
Olson noted that more than 20 Idaho federal, state, county and local law enforcement agencies have participated in these investigations and prosecutions. “These cases, like the Operation Mountain Sweep efforts, show that Idaho law enforcement at all levels will work together to aggressively combat illegal marijuana grow operations on public lands,” said Olson. “The American people should be able to safely and lawfully enjoy our treasure of public lands in Idaho and throughout the West. Criminals who conduct illegal marijuana grows endanger the public in three ways: first, by endangering citizens using public lands; second, by endangering our natural resources; and third, by growing marijuana which they then intend to richly profit from by selling illegal drugs to our citizens.”
Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) is a collaborative effort by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and communities to prevent and deter gun violence.