But '95 Season Likely to Be Big One

louis martin
cns news & features

IT IS 3:33 in the afternoon on a Tuesday in late July. It is warm but not burning hot at the sheriff's checkpoint at the turnoff from Comptche-Ukiah road to Low Gap road. The low drone of a helicopter can be heard in the distance; nearby a mosquito makes a high pitch whine and is slapped.

"Personally," says a deputy, "I think he's over in Ukiah sipping a cool one by now."

Suddenly there is the sound of motion in the woods on the other side of the metal fence. But nothing can be seen among the Douglas Fir, Redwood, and occasional Madrone. The sound stops and it is quiet again in the woods. A breeze comes up from the deep gorge on the opposite side of the road, then dies.

There is thick underbrush that makes spotting the source of the noise impossible. The rains have been heavy this year, and the woods are lush in the wild lands of Mendocino. In the steep gorges between Comptche and Ukiah, vegetation is luxuriant.

It's a great year for trees, it's a great year for crops, and it's a great year for marijuana growers as well.

THE AMOUNT of grass growing in range land is a good indication of a year's growing potential. Says Dave Bengston, Mendocino county's agricultural commissioner, "I have never seen so much grass in range- land feed. It is going to help everybody everywhere." The rains have even helped the commissioner in his own yard where, he says, his Shasta Daisies are 4-1/2 to 5 feet tall, as compared to an average of 2 to 2-1/2 feet.

There are other factors that may make it a great year for crops--legal or illegal. Seeds germinate better with natural rains, says Bengston; and with the additional growth there will be more food for wildlife, thereby sparing some crops. "Lots of times," says Bengston, "we get very little rain during the Winter, and then stuff dries out up in the higher elevations and there's no water and no feed, and all of a sudden a lot of these animals are down in our face."

The additional growth should also mean more camouflage for hiding illegal crops, though it may mean competition from weeds. The heavy rains may, however, push the harvest season out.

AT 10:48 in the morning on that same Tuesday, on a steep hillside area off Masonite road, a young Hispanic male wearing camouflage pants, tan shirt, and blue baseball cap fires twice with a hand gun at deputy Rusty Noe.

He fires at close range--they're "eye ball to eye ball," says Sergeant Ron Cadillo, who's in charge of the eradication effort. "We've been shot at before," says Cadillo, but always from a greater distance.

Noe is there on the hill side with two other Mendocino County sheriff deputies pulling up marijuana plants--870 in this plot--in the annual rite of eradication that irritates growers but never succeeds at its goal: the elimination of marijuana from Mendocino County. In fact, if eradicated plant count is an indicator of total crop size, Mendocino is the number one producer in the State of California.

Noe and fellow deputies return the fire, but Noe's would-be assailant, at 5'10'' tall for his race, flees into the dense brush, presumably unharmed. A manhunt begins.

Shooting at law enforcement is never taken lightly, but now, just three months and a week after the killing of deputy Bob Davis on the Round Valley Indian Reservation, the response is substantial. Additional units are brought into the area. Check points are set up on Low Gap road and on Flynn Creek road. Tracking dogs, an infra-red spotting helicopter, and an Incident Command Team and support trailer are brought in. Sheriff Tuso himself leads the search as the area is combed.

It is hoped by combing the area that the suspect can be flushed out--if he is still there. When he is not flushed out by late afternoon, it is hoped that he may be spotted with the infra-red helicopter when night falls. When that fails to produce a suspect by 10 PM, the search is called off.

According to Cadillo on Friday, some information is coming back about the suspect, but neither he nor Captain Berle Murray sounds too optimistic that he will be found.

ACCESS to timber lands is relatively easy. On this morning when the opening shots of the season are fired, two women, mother and daughter, and a baby guard the orange gate on dusty Masonite road off highway 128 that leads from the valley up into miles of Louisiana Pacific timber lands. The two women, who sit by the side of the guard shack and perspire, admit it is hard to tell who is going in and out. On this morning they have been told by a sheriffs deputy not to challenge anyone leaving. The baby, sitting on its mother's lap, makes a face: the rudimentary beginning of a smile.

MARIJUANA HARVEST SEASON in Mendocino County often brings violence with it. Most of it occurs on timber lands when large outdoor gardens are raided. Two years ago, one Hispanic grower, Marcos Villalobos Dominguez, was shot to death near Fish Rock Road, when the person who hired him thought he had ripped off a garden. In fact, the county eradication team had been there the day before to eradicate the garden.

In another instance, three Caucasian males from Hopland were ripping off a garden in the same area of Fish Rock Road when one was shot and killed. Initially, they claimed they were out deer hunting and had "stumbled" into the garden.

In late August the situation in the woods becomes somewhat confused by the fact that it is deer season, providing a ready explanation for anyone who is armed in the woods. Agricultural commissioner Bengston says he avoids certain area this time of the year, both because of pot growers and deer hunters.

In the other big pot-producing counties in California-- Humbolt, Trinity, and Sonoma--there have been no shooting incidents so far this year.

Captain David Laffranchini of the Trinity County Sheriff's Department says the plants they are seeing are a lot smaller than usual. He says that's because the late rains have pushed out the season. Sergeant Rochester of the Sonoma County Sheriffs Office says they are seeing gardens with more than the usual number of plants. Of the three gardens eradicated this year, all had over 1000 plants. But Sonoma County is "not like Mendocino County," says Rochester; there is less growing, he says, and gardens tend to be smaller.

Following Tuesdays shootout, Cadillo says they are going to step up security "somewhat." But he says sheriffs deputies are always taking risks. Anytime you stop a car, he says, there is the risk of getting shot.

Body armor can reduce the risk, but wearing it is left up to the individual deputy. The problem is heat, "which can be just as deadly," says Cadillo. About half the deputies wear it. In Sonoma County, body armor is not used. With water, machetes, and guns, it adds too much weight on hikes, says Rochester. In Trinity County body armor is available, says Laffranchini, and most deputies wear it, though it's not required. But he warns against false security: that it's only good against hand guns and small caliber bullets.

As to Tuesday's shooting in Mendocino, he agrees with the Humbolt County Sheriffs Office that it's just going to put pressure on growers--something that growers do not want. And whoever did the shooting, he says, is likely to find himself under pressure from fellow growers as well as the sheriff.

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