LAKE COUNTY – A great deal of concern has been raised in California lately about marijuana growers operating in public and private lands on remote regions of forest and rural areas, especially in northern California. These rogue growers are said to divert water resources, pollute the area with waste, trash, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Illegal growers have been known to dam streams, install irrigation piping, and destroy native plant life to make room for small scale marijuana farms. These cultivators are also known to bring weapons to these areas, and defend their stakes from intruders, who may be innocent hunters, hikers, campers, or forestry workers. A group of California lawmakers recently appealed to the U.S. Sentencing Commission to treat these violators with tougher punishments in line with the damage and danger they pose, in addition to the narcotics violations.
Some growers, however, take a more high tech approach. Sophisticated operations set up in homes and farms can produce bumper crops of marijuana without negative environmental impacts. However, these kinds of grows are still illegal, and despite the allowance of medical-use marijuana in the state, volume growing and harvesting for profit is forbidden by state and federal laws. Lake County Narcotics Detectives recently encountered two such growing operations, arrested four people, and eradicated over 4,500 marijuana plants.
On Friday, May 2, Lake County Code Enforcement officers were inspecting what was supposed to be an empty parcel off of Dry Creek Road in Middletown, a small community in the southern most part of Lake County. Dry Creek Road runs west of Highway 29 into the wooded hills near the Sonoma County border. According to the Lake Sheriff’s Department, the inspectors called on the Narcotics detectives to assist after seeing several hoop style greenhouses along with several other unpermitted structures. They suspected marijuana cultivation.
Detectives arriving at the locked gate met with Aaron Monroe Lentz, 31 of Middletown. The Code Enforcement officer told the detectives that Lentz was the property owner, and the detective explained to Lentz that they were there to inspect the greenhouses they thought were there. Lentz said he did have some greenhouses, but did not answer when he was asked what they were for. The detective pressed on, asking how many marijuana plants were growing on the property, and Lentz said he wouldn’t answer any more questions without his lawyer.
The detectives pressed on, and found the hoop style greenhouses described by the Code Enforcement team. As they approached they could already smell the cannabis, and saw the marijuana plants growing through the open end of one of them. As they continued to assist with the code inspection, the detectives encountered another man, 31-year-old local resident Andrew Peter Diehl, who was working on the irrigation systems for the greenhouses. After telling Diehl why they were there, they asked him if he lived there. Like Lentz, he said he wouldn’t answer any more questions without a lawyer.
At this point, the detectives decided that the code enforcement needed to become an active narcotics investigation. They secured the property and requested a search warrant, which was soon granted. Their continued search cataloged five greenhouses with 1,304 marijuana plants carefully raised, which were quickly eradicated. A non-permitted housing structure on the house, where apparently Lentz and Diehl were living, had a refrigerator with 15 ounces of processed marijuana, and $2,492.00 was found in a bedroom. Both of the men were arrested and booked for cultivation of marijuana and possession of marijuana for sale. Lentz had another $538.00 with him, and the $3,030.00 was seized pending asset forfeiture if it is shown to be profits from illegal narcotics sales. Both list their address as the Dry Creek property.
A week later, on May 9, Lake County narcotics detectives, armed with two search warrants, arrived at 3:25 in the afternoon to investigate two adjoining properties on Riata Road in the rural south part of the town of Lower Lake amid farm houses and orchards. No one was present at either location as they entered to conduct the search. They found another very sophisticated marijuana cultivation set up at both properties. The first house had a bedroom converted to a grow house, with 920 marijuana plants, and a closet with two pounds of processed pot. The master bedroom had growing supplies, a digital scale, and a Browning 9mm semi-automatic pistol. Outside the house there was a greenhouse and a “light depravation” set-up that allows the grower to control the growing process regardless of seasonal factors. An additional 1,380 plants were found in outside locations.
The property next door had two fifth wheel trailers and four greenhouses set up. One of the trailers had a 12 gauge shotgun and shells, along with 129 marijuana plants. The four greenhouses contained 492 plants, and another 22 plants were found growing around the property. The plants, over 3,000 in both locations, were all eradicated, and the weapons taken as evidence.
As the detectives were wrapping up the investigation, they saw a white sedan driving up with two Hispanic men. No doubt seeing the detectives in site, they drove past the location, but one of the detectives spotted an open beer bottle held between the driver’s legs. They stopped the car and detained the two men, 30-year-old Nestor Alejandro Rodriguez-Gonzalez and 25-year-old Miguel Angel Vargas. Detectives found evidence linking the men to the two properties. Vargas’ residence is on Riata, while Rodriguez-Gonzalez is listed as a transient, and may have been staying with Vargas. He also has a no-bail immigration hold on him. Both were arrested for cultivating marijuana, possession of marijuana for sale, and being armed in the commission of a felony, and booked at the Hill Road Correctional Facility.
The Sheriff’s Narcotics Task Force has repeatedly stressed its intentions to eradicate illegal narcotics from Lake County and seize the assets and profits from trafficking whenever possible, whether in the backwoods, or high tech home and farm operations like these. Anyone who wants to pitch in can call an anonymous tip to 707-263-3663.