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9/10/2015 DEA pot raid here part of multi-state exercise; more busts expected
“Operation Mountain Grass” was what federal agencies called the pre-dawn marijuana grow house raids conducted Tuesday, September 1, in Custer and Fremont counties. There were a total of 20 indictments issued, resulting in 17 arrests – most out of state – with three fugitives still being sought as of yesterday, Wednesday, Sept. 9. More than 1,000 marijuana plants and $28,000 in cash, as well as 28 firearms were seized. Custer County Sheriff Shannon Byerly said this was “good for everybody.” Several law enforcement agencies were involved in the raids, including the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Custer, Fremont and Pueblo county sheriff’s departments, Colorado State Patrol, Canon City Police Department and others. Byerly held a press conference on Tuesday, September 8 where he fielded questions about one of the largest joint taskforce operations this county has ever seen. According to Byerly, one DEA agent said that he had never been involved in an operation that seized so many grow operations. Before the raid went down, the DEA conducted aerial surveillance of each location, obtaining warrants to fly low into restricted airspace. Byerly said his office received several calls and complaints about low-flying helicopters. “They were looking at the grows and potential grows,” Byerly said. Of the eight locations, the three that were in Custer County were 1089 County Road 310, 207 Little Bear, and 360 Piper Circle. The latter was pictured in last week’s Tribune, and is located in Silver West Estates, not on Silver West Airport property. The other two properties have been seized by the US Attorney’s office. That office also issued the warrants, and will be prosecuting the cases in federal courts in Denver. The five other sites were in Fremont County, in the Copper Gulch vicinity. Officials have not yet determined if the grows were run by either a Mexican or Cuban cartel. Byerly did state that there was a heavy Cuban influence. The individual who led the organization used Cubans to work the grow houses. At the Little Bear operation, there was an individual who stated to officials that he had been at the home for only a week. He wasn’t getting paid and wasn’t allowed to leave the property, but he was being fed and allowed to live in the U.S. “The man was Cuban,” Byerly said. “That situation has indicators with how the entire operation was being run.” Though there were eight facilities busted in Fremont and Custer counties, most of the arrests took place at Georgia marijuana growing facilities. There were also arrests in Florida where administrative offices were located. “When we went to make the bust,” Byerly said, “there were five felony indictments, but we knew there would be more arrests. They just didn’t have enough evidence at the time.” When the bust happened, officials involved in “Operation Mountain Grass” knew there was a high probability that those five wouldn’t be at the grow locations. They were constantly in and out. One of the main organizers was Rosa Perez, who was arrested at a site in Georgia. The man who led the operation had somehow been informed that the bust was going to happen, and was at an airport in Florida with plans to flee to Mexico. He was arrested at the airport. “All of the busts, even in Georgia and Florida, happened at the same time,” Byerly said. “It was much bigger than just Fremont and Custer counties in terms of all the parties involved.” The five arrests made in Custer County included four males with Colorado driver’s licenses and a woman with a Florida driver’s license. Byerly described the grows as “professionally run.” They had wired the breakers to fuel electricity to the ballasts beneath each lightbulb, and there was a light on each plant. “They had an electrician coming in,” Byerly said. “These sites were all very dangerous because they could have lit up at any time.” He explained that if someone is pulling 200 amps and only have a 150 amp feed, it puts enough strain on the house to cause it to catch fire. Not only that, but the wires were exposed. “If someone tripped and fell into it,” Byerly said, “you’d be a fried puppy.” Byerly said the plants had also “been trained to think” that the days were shorter so they would grow faster. Marijuana plants mature in about 140 to 180 days. These plants matured within 90 days. “The rooms had mature plants about to be harvested in two or three weeks,” Byerly said. “Buds were about a foot long. They knew what they were doing.” The DEA brought in a California based chemist who took a clipping of every single plant to verify the species and confirm that it was cannabis. The chemist did this while being filmed. Once that was done, each plant was pulled out of its pot to prove that it was one plant. After that, the plants were taken outside and photographed before being stored in burlap sacks so they wouldn’t mold. All the bags were loaded into trucks, where they were held for three days before being destroyed. Byerly said the marijuana was taken to the steel mill in Pueblo and evaporated in the furnace where steel is melted. “Colorado has the most liberal marijuana laws in the world,” Byerly said, “even more liberal than Amsterdam. What got federal interest was when marijuana was being shipped out of state. The bulk of charges will be organized crime and interstate trafficking.” He explained that it is much more lucrative for operations like this one to send their product out of state because keeping it in Colorado isn’t cost effective. Before Colorado voters legalized recreational marijuana, what was once procured for $5,000 is now available for $2,000 in the state. Byerly urged citizens to report suspicious behavior, because those calls helped locate the locations. “Fact is, if you are in Colorado and are growing, selling and trafficking the drug illegally, your actions are not being ignored. We will come after you.” He added that more busts could be seen later this week elsewhere in the state. – J.E. Ward and W.A. Ewing