$20M, 7-home pot-growing bust called largest in Sullivan history

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Jun 21, 2007
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Officials are calling it the biggest marijuana bust in the history of Sullivan County: more than 7,000 pot plants, with a street value approaching $20 million, were seized from seven properties in the towns of Mamakating, Lumberland and Highland between Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning.

A total of 15 people were arrested by local and federal law enforcement officials on charges of conspiracy to distribute narcotics. DEA Special Agent-in-charge John Gilbride said the marijuana was intended for distribution in New York and in cities throughout the Northeast.

"We believe it will be a record, probably the biggest seizure in Sullivan County," said Undersheriff Eric Chaboty. He said the indoor hydroponic marijuana growing operation was "highly sophisticated," producing plants that would yield about two pounds each of high-grade marijuana.

Teams of agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and Sullivan County sheriff's deputies, assisted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, started the operation about 4 p.m. Tuesday. They had been investigating extraordinarily high utility bills from a couple of properties, typically a clue to so-called grow houses.

DEA agents and deputies were checking the property at 1193 Pine Kill Road in Mamakating, a secluded property guarded by a stone gate and "no trespassing" signs, which leads to private Bear Drive. DEA agents and deputies saw a man locking the gate to the private road. An SUV was parked inside, occupied by several people, and a Lincoln Town Car pulled up behind the SUV. A DEA agent spoke to the man locking the gate and the Lincoln driver; both reeked of marijuana.

"They stunk out loud," Chaboty said.

As agents walked on Bear Drive, another car and a U-Haul approached from inside; they were also stopped, and all the suspects there were taken into custody. The suspects admitted to being "workers for an organization that grows marijuana, headed by another individual," according to the federal criminal complaint.

With the consent of one of the suspects, agents and police searched the 1193 Pine Kill Road/48 Bear Drive property; they found more than 1,000 pot plants, police said.

Another suspect told police about most of the other properties. From there, authorities hit house after house through the night and early morning, raiding addresses on South Road and Brooktrail Road in the Town of Mamakating; on Decker Road, Tuthill Road and Haring Road in Lumberland; and on Barker Road in the Town of Highland.

They called in assistance in the form of 30 more agents from the New York City Organized Crime Strike Force. By the time officials reached the last house, the occupants had fled, leaving food on the table.

"They must have been tipped, because they were gone," Chaboty said.

The pot plants were in various stages of growth, and some had been cut and dried.

All 15 arrested were described by law enforcement as immigrants from South and Central America; 14 of them were said to be undocumented immigrants. All were being taken to U.S. District Court in White Plains on Wednesday for arraignment.

At 800 South Road, a plain, gray-sided ranch house with an American flag hanging over the porch, agents were still clearing plants out of the property Wednesday afternoon. When the door was open, marijuana could be smelled from the road about 50 yards away.

The entire South Road property is surrounded by a 6-foot tall security fence posted with "Beware of Dogs" and "No Trespassing" signs.

A bevy of New York City media had camped out there. DEA officials backed up a U-Haul and unloaded cut plants that had been stuffed into plastic bags for the cameras.

Growers had apparently bypassed the electrical meters to avoid detection at the South Road house and another property; two other properties, including some of the buildings at the Pine Kill address, were powered by commercial grade diesel generators.

A man named John who lives near the South Road house, where 400-500 plants were seized, said the 6-foot-high security fences around the property went up last spring.


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