|Eight illegal marijuana grow facilities were raided in pre-dawn hours Tuesday, September 1, in Custer and Fremont Counties and at least four arrests were made.
The bust was coordinated by the U.S. Attorney General’s Office and run by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) out of Denver. Close to 100 law enforcement officers from at least seven local, regional, state and federal agencies were involved in the busts, which got underway at 3 a.m. Tuesday.
DEA investigator, Timothy Scott, clad in white bio-hazard overalls while taking a break from the removal of plants from one of the sites, explained that there were numerous agencies involved in the bust. Visible after sunrise, these included the Custer County Sheriff’s Office, Fremont Sheriff’s Office, Colorado State Patrol, Canon City Police Department, Pueblo Police Department and SWAT team, the DEA and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. Scott explained though, that details of the multi-agency raid will not be announced until there is an official press release.
“We did not meet any resistance,” said Custer County sheriff, Shannon Byerly. “There were absolutely no shots fired, but we did use flash bangs.” DEA helicopters were in the air as the raid began, providing assistance and direction.
“We detained five suspects on our side,” Sheriff Byerly said, “but the DA decided to release one because we didn’t have enough on him. The other four were arrested.”
Authorities have yet to release the identities of those arrested.
Though four have been collared as of Tuesday afternoon, September 1, more are expected to be taken into custody within the next few days.
At least three of the eight facilities were in Custer County and are believed to have been shipping the product out of the state. They had also been receiving chemicals, including fertilizers, allegedly shipped to the sites by UPS in huge quantities.
“These are not Billy Bob’s grow operations,” Sheriff Byerly said. “These are highly scientific and technical grows.”
Three of the raids took place along the Airport Road vicinity south of Westcliffe, and others in the Copper Gulch area north of Westcliffe in Fremont County.
One operation took place inside of an airplane hangar at the SilverWest Airport, which reportedly had been drawing enough electricity to have raised a few flags, according to an anonymous source involved in the raid. “The electric company should have seen that something was going on,” the person said.
Though authorities are unable to reveal how much marijuana has been seized so far, Sheriff Byerly noted that one of the sites, a home and hangar in the Silver West subdivision inside the Butler Field grounds, was posted as uninhabitable after the raid by Jackie Hobby, the county’s planning and zoning director. He stated that most probably, dangerous amounts of mold had grown inside the house because of the humidity and heat created in raising marijuana plants.
One source said the marijuana collected had a street value of at least $3 million.
Sheriff Byerly stated that the investigation started in January. “Not ten days after taking office,” he said, “I was on the phone. This was a federal case, which is why it took so long. They needed to cross their T’s and dot their I’s before proceeding.”
He estimated that there may have been as many as 100 boots on the ground during the Tuesday morning raid, and expressed relief that no one was injured during the course of the operation.
“I’m glad it finally came to fruition,” Byerly said, “and that we were able to address some of the issues of marijuana in the county. I’ve been anxious to get this going.”
The joint operation drew attention from local residents as helicopters hovered in the dark skies, and as numerous agency vehicles streamed through the county. Many police cars and a SWAT armored personnel carrier gathered at the Bowling Alley’s Ranchers Roost for breakfast after the initial raid.
“The operation went well,” said Captain Charlie Taylor of the Pueblo PD, while waiting for his pancakes. “We were here to help and it was successful. No one got hurt. All I really can say is that you have a lot of plants growing in your county.”
Custer County deputy, Mike Middleton, stated that those involved were all safe and secure. “The information leading up to the raid was compartmentalized,” he explained. “It was a big operation and we were on a need-to-know basis, so we handled it that way.”
DEA’s Special Agent Michael Moore, who controls the information flow from the Denver regional office, said by telephone that he had “nothing” to say until the official press release later this week. Information is held to a minimum while arrest and arraignment documents remain sealed in the courts.
– J.E. Ward and W.A. Ewing