Huge pot grow ‘pretty brazen’

9,200 plants discovered a ‘good football’s throw’ from I-70 near De Beque

A drug task force member with the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department carries two armloads of marjuana plantsThursday from the landing zone to a dump truck that will take the plants to the Mesa County Landfill.



One of two suspects arrested at the illegal grow operation Thursday morning sits in handcuffs and guarded by a DEA agent.



QUICKREAD


Well before dawn Thursday, about a dozen local and federal law enforcement agents drove to an abandoned well pad near De Beque, shouldered some 60 pounds of gear each and began a three-mile trek through the chilly dark of the Colorado River banks by way of Union Pacific railroad tracks.

Agents with night optics peered down from cliffs on either side of Interstate 70, and three Mesa County Sheriff’s Office boats took to the river as the team made its way to one of two river islands they believed were home to a massive illegal marijuana grow guarded by three armed men.

A Drug Enforcement Administration plane and helicopter provided support from above and Colorado State Patrol troopers posted on a closed lane of I-70 to cut off escape. Another team headed to the second island, where they believed they would find more plants but no campsite.

Navigating a dense tangle of tamarisk and cottonwood trees and hampered by the canyon’s infamously poor cellphone and radio reception, the first team surprised the three men in a makeshift camp, who instantly fled.

Two of the three were quickly caught, at about 7 a.m. — both young men whose names were not released by the DEA Thursday.

More than 9,200 marijuana plants were collected between the two islands, which one federal employee described as not more than a “good football’s throw” from I-70.

“They’re pretty brazen,” said Steven Knight, group supervisor for the DEA’s Grand Junction office. “If you were driving down I-70 and pulled over, you could see the marijuana.”

Agents and officers Thursday evening were still looking for the third suspect, described as a Hispanic man wearing a black T-shirt. Knight said during the day he believed the third man was hiding out on the small but thickly vegetated island where the men’s campsite was found.

“You get in there, it’s easy to hide,” he said.

The De Beque Canyon Grow case began in May, Knight said, although it was really triggered by an odd 2016 event. A man was caught trying to sneak into the river islands area with some 8,000 marijuana seeds in his pockets.

In May this year, a Bureau of Land Management employee and a sheriff’s deputy decided to go up a nearby cliff and try to see if anybody ever returned to the spot, Knight said.

“They went up top and looked down,” he said. “They saw what looked like a gas can and some equipment. … We just started watching them from the cliffs up high.”

Knight said surveillance showed what appeared to be three men living on the smaller island and patrolling two grows with rifles.

For the next several months, Knight said, they watched the trio to learn more, waiting until the plants they were tending were closer to harvest.

“There was no hurry on our part,” he said. “They were isolated.”

Thursday morning turned into a waiting game for agents and officers staged at Island Acres State Park while the team on the river island played hide-and-seek with the third suspect.

Around 9 a.m. the first of the two suspects — shirtless with a bandaged cut on one of his bare feet — was brought to the staging area, where he was ushered to a shaded picnic table area and advised of his rights.

Half an hour later, when the second suspect arrived at the park with a Colorado State Patrol trooper, the first suspect grinned and called out to him.

Knight, walking between the two, spun around.

“Hey,” Knight shouted. “Cállate” — “Shut up,” in Spanish.

The suspects told agents they were cousins from Sinaloa state in Mexico, Knight told his team. The first suspect claimed about 6,000 plants were on the two islands.

“They’ve been sent here to set up this grow,” Knight said.

It was after 11 a.m. when the DEA helicopter started lifting slings full of hundreds of uprooted marijuana plants from the river islands and dropping them off at Island Acres State Park, where curious campers stood watching from a short distance and buzzed by in golf carts.

By mid-afternoon, the team had found much more than 6,000 marijuana plants; according to DEA spokesman Jim Gothe the final tally topped more than 9,200 plants.

The two suspects were due to be arraigned this afternoon in federal court in Grand Junction.

Knight said that while outdoor grows of comparable sizes have been raided in the region in the past, the De Beque Canyon grow is the largest operation he’s dealt with since transferring to Grand Junction a year ago.

“But the boldness of doing it right next to the highway?” Knight said. “And these guys are not from Colorado.”

Some 50 to 60 law enforcement officers from multiple agencies were involved in the operation, Knight said, including representatives of the sheriff’s office, the Grand Junction Police Department, the Western Colorado Drug Task Force, Colorado State Patrol, the FBI, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Marshals Service, the National Guard, and DEA operatives from the West Slope as well as Salt Lake City and Colorado Springs.

Knight praised the sheer physical effort of the team that responded to the islands and “pushed through the brush they could hardly get through.”

“A pretty heroic effort,” he said. “I’m proud of them.”


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