Sheriff’s deputies in Merced County destroyed about 400 marijuana plants they found in an elaborate commercial garden carefully hidden beneath a house on an almond ranch.
Victor Arreola Barajas, 40, was arrested in the Hilmar area in connection with the raid. He was booked in lieu of $20,000 bail on charges of marijuana cultivation and utilities theft.
Officers arrested Barajas in a car near the site of the garden. He was holding more than $5,000 in cash, said Merced County Sheriff’s Deputy Ray Framstad.
The raid took place April 4 about 10 a.m. Inside the house, it was apparent the cultivators had jury-rigged the electrical system to bypass a meter. This allowed them to steal thousands of dollars in electricity, said Deputy Chris Sziraki.
“All these indoor grows that steal power are potential fire hazards,” Sziraki said.
Deputies said the growers used a decoy system to throw them off the track, growing 17 plants inside the house so investigators wouldn’t go digging for the real stash: 400 plants in the underground garden.
“This is very elaborate,” Sziraki said. “It’s one of the most complicated concealment methods you’ll find.”
The only access to the garden cave was through a small hole outside the home that led to a concrete ledge and a ladder to the garden below. Deputies declined to say how they uncovered the grow site.
Inside, the growers set up a complicated electrical system that powered dozens of grow lamps, circulation fans, and air purifiers, Sziraki said.
“This is easily $15,000 to $20,000 in equipment alone,” he said.
Deputies said the garden had the markings of a commercial grow, though they said they didn’t yet know whether it was connected to any larger drug groups. The raid turned up no medical marijuana recommendations.
“And you don’t typically find electrical bypasses and utility theft in medical use grows, or this type of (effort) to mask the odor” Sziraki said.
Merced County has been on a tear against marijuana growers lately. The county has a zero-tolerance policy toward suspected commercial cultivators, and has been targeting sites with more than 12 plants.
The Central Valley generally has become a dangerous place to grow pot of late. Earlier this year, neighboring Fresno County banned all weed grows, indoors and out. Efforts to overturn such policies in court have failed, and there’s a good chance they could spread to like-minded parts of the state.