Marijuana gardens discovered near school

No arrests made in discovery of 400 plants with a street value of about $800,000

awileman@sierrastar.comSeptember 17, 2013 

More than 400 mature marijuana plants (with a street value of $800,00) discovered within 75 yards of Coarsegold Elementary School, were eradicated early in the early morning of Sept. 12.

According to the Madera County Sheriff's Office, when agents, and the Madera Regional SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team arrived at dawn adjacent to the school, they saw two men flee the marijuana grow and head into dense brush. Suddenly a pit bull appeared, charging at the deputies. For their safety, officers had no choice but to shoot the dog.

The foot chase for the pair ended when they were apprehended on school grounds. Deputies removed both men from the campus and took them back to the location that had been secured by additional officers on scene, although as of Tuesday afternoon, no arrests have been made and the investigation is ongoing.

"No one was injured, and because of their swift timing, agents were able to complete this delicate mission before the first bus arrived at the school," Madera County Sheriff John Anderson said. "Therefore no lockdown was needed."

Two children found living in squalor inside a house on the property were placed in the care of Child Protective Services for their safety and welfare. Two of the children are students at Coarsegold Elementary, and an older sibling, who was not at home at the time, is a Yosemite High School student.

As many as five adults occupied the residence and were reportedly sharing rooms in the home, as well occupying make-shift camps scattered throughout the five-acre property.

According to Anderson, a 12-man team was assigned to this incident.

According to Erica Stuart, public information officer for the sheriff's office, the eradication mission was set in motion at about 7 p.m. Sept. 11, when law enforcement officials received word that a marijuana plant had been found on school grounds.

The Madera County Narcotic Enforcement Team (MADNET) quickly secured a search warrant for the nearby property, and held a briefing with both Anderson and Coarsegold Elementary School Principal Bob Rose. Rose, who said a school employee found marijuana on campus Monday, was prepared to put his school on lockdown if the mission could not be accomplished before students were scheduled to arrive on campus.

"I was here with operation staff and there was not a single student on campus prior to the end of the intervention/mission," Rose said. "It had very little effect on the school ... had this happened during school time it might have been different."

Rose stated that the Coarsegold Elementary would not stand by and watch illegal activities take place that could effect the safety of students on campus.

"From the standpoint of Coarsegold Elementary School we want to make a strong statement that this is not acceptable," Rose said. "It's not anything kids should be involved with and we want to put a strong message out that we're not going to tolerate it at Coarsegold Elementary," Rose said.

Rose said communication to parents was important and released a statement to parents on Thursday following the incident notifying of the bust and made sure to tell parents the safety and well being of children on campus was in good hands.

"On Thursday night we gave parents minimal amount of info and reiterated to parents that things were handled carefully and safely," Rose said.

Rose also said that he was disturbed by the fact that someone was willing to grow marijuana so close to a elementary school.

"It is alarming to me that we have that amount of marijuana this close to a school — it shows that those who are growing are not afraid and no place is safe from pot farms," Rose said.

According to the sheriff's office, the safety and welfare of the school children, faculty, and staff was vital, so agents were not afforded time to gather any information about who lived on the property, how many people occupied the property, if there were children, if they had dogs, and if any of them might be armed, prior to entering the property.

"Again, its not the kind of thing we want to associate with the elementary school. It looked like it had little to do with medical or medicinal uses. It was an illegal grow," Anderson said.

Anderson and his deputies sometime have a difficult time determining whether a grow site is illegal or not prior to entering the property.

In compliance with Proposition 215, medicinal marijuana growers are limited to up to 99 plants and six pounds of dried marijuana per person. Although the house had four medicinal license and were close to the allotted amount of plants, the area in which they were growing was much larger than the 100 square-feet allowed by Prop 215.

"They were in violation of Proposition 215 because of the size of the grow ... this was several acres," Anderson said.

A anonymous neighbor living next to the grow site for the past six years said the house was over ran with garbage, the tenants were uncordial and their dogs were very aggressive.

"All my contacts were very negative, we found them to be suspicious from day one ... there were different vehicles in all day and night and there was trash everywhere," he said. "We had problems and they always had pit bulls running loose on the property and the dogs chased horses and mules in the area."

Neighbors agreed that it was scary to see such a big grow so close to homes and a school.

"It is frightening, these people are a lot more dangerous that we had expected and it's upsetting the brashness and the lack of concern from these people about endangering the children," said a neighbor who wished to remain anonymous.

Four separate gardens were located — all of them within 75 yards of the school.

According to Rose, in light of the close proximity of the marijuana eradication mission, a counselor is available in the event that any students have any questions, and to assure them that they are safe at school.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the identity of the two suspects arrested had not been released.

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