Three men were arrested and more than 6,000 marijuana plants seized from a massive underground bunker north of Lancaster in what authorities Friday said was the largest such operation ever uncovered in the county.
Authorities estimated that the high-desert site discovered Thursday produced about 24,000 marijuana plants a year that, when harvested, could bring an estimated $75 million to $150 million a year on the street.
Sheriff's deputies and federal Drug Enforcement Agency agents unexpectedly stumbled onto the 7,000-square-foot bunker--complete with diesel-powered lights and ventilation--while searching a nearby house.
Investigators said they went to the house after finding an $800 utility bill, indicating excessive energy use, during their investigation of a related case in Arizona. The bill, found when deputies served a search warrant at an Antelope Valley location, apparently was issued before the site's diesel generator was working.
"It's the most incredible thing you'll ever see in your life," said Capt. Larry Waldie, commander of the sheriff's narcotics bureau. "We've never seen anything quite as sophisticated as this." Waldie estimated that the site on Avenue E near 40th Street East had been operating for two years.
Deputies said the site apparently represented a major growing and distribution point for marijuana in Southern California.
Authorities said they believe the farm was run by the same people who were involved with operating two similar underground sites near Bullhead City, Ariz., that DEA agents raided Oct. 30, resulting in seven arrests.
The bunker had been dug out under a more than foot-thick concrete ceiling. The thickness of the concrete was an apparent attempt to shield the operation from infrared sensing equipment which could detect heat from lamps used to supply the plants with light. The plants were growing wall-to-wall in pots under about 142 generator-powered lamps.
A trapdoor inside a back building led to the vault, which was divided into three rooms.
Waldie estimated that the underground operation cost more than $1 million to build and equip. Deputies who went there following up a lead Thursday afternoon found a surveillance camera monitoring the site. No money, weapons or large quantities of harvested marijuana were found.
Deputies arrested two caretakers at the desert ranch house without incident. Both were being held Friday at the Lancaster sheriff's station on $5-million bail each and face arraignment Monday on felony drug cultivation charges. They were identified as Calvin G. James, 38, of Garden Grove and Ronald L. Podratz, 42, of Alpine in San Diego County.
Another man described by investigators as a top figure in both the Lancaster and Arizona operations surrendered Thursday at the Lancaster sheriff's station and faces federal charges in Arizona of conspiracy to distribute marijuana.
Investigators identified him as Frank E. Gegax, 48, of Lancaster, owner of KMG Construction Inc. in Lancaster. DEA agents served federal search warrants Thursday at Gegax's residence and business and said they recovered nearly $50,000 in cash from the business.
A DEA spokesman in Los Angeles said two of Gegax's relatives--Kathleen Gegax and Michael Gegax, apparently his wife and brother--were among the seven people arrested in Arizona. One underground location there had about 10,000 plants, the other about 5,000, officials said.
Deputies also are looking for an Antelope Valley father and son in connection with the case. The son, identified as Richard F. Yerger, 28, was listed as the owner of the Lancaster-area site. Officials said his father, Richard E. Yerger, 60, may also be involved.
Sheriff's deputies said the house, apparently built without proper permits, probably would be demolished. Deputies said the 10-acre site, purchased by the younger Yerger in 1986 for about $55,000 according to real estate records, could be sold as drug forfeiture property.