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Glendale police bust big pot farm

Times Staff Writers

Glendale police confiscated $10 million worth of marijuana from a sophisticated outdoor growing operation in the Verdugo Mountains that tapped into a city water tank designated for emergency use during brush fires.

The growers watered their crops by illegally hooking a drip-irrigation system into a 10,000-gallon cistern in themountains, which are prone to summer and fall brush fires. Glendale fire officials said half of the water tank had been drained.

Ironically, the region’s record dry weather and drought conditions led to the discovery of the pot operation.

A helicopter pilot making a routine inspection for possible fires during the red-flag conditions saw the lush, green pot plants against the brown, shriveled brush.

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“He noticed a patch of green that stood out from everything else,” said John Balian, a Glendale police spokesman.

The more than 5,000 marijuana plants were discovered throughout several ravines on the north side of the mountains.The use of water that was reserved for firefighters outraged both Glendale officials and residents, who said they were thankful that the chopper pilot found the farm before the tank had been emptied.

“We are in such a threat with the weather like this,” said Krista Anderson, 43, who lives on the top of the fire trail that leads into the hillside brush. “Any fire up here will come straight for us. Without water, what will we do?”

Police said the farm was spread across two to three acres and was two years old.

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Seizure of a large outdoor crop is unusual, officials said, as many growers have moved their operations indoors to avoid detection.

During the last year, local authorities, primarily in the San Gabriel Valley, have confiscated millions of dollars worth of marijuana plants from more than a dozen suburban homes that were doubling as hollowed-out greenhouses.

With the help of technology, growers have created multiple, year-round growing cycles by purchasing expensive equipment, including hydroponic watering systems and timed lighting and venting systems.

They also illegally tap into the power system to avoid arousing the suspicion of police and power companies, which might otherwise notice astronomical utility bills.

In contrast, the Glendale growers decided to stay outdoors and tap the public water supply.

The 10,000-gallon cistern is one of several in the Verdugo Mountains that firefighters use, said Steve Howard, deputy chief of operations at the Glendale Fire Department.

The partially buried tanks are near fire roads and primarily are used for mop-up operations.

“We count on those cisterns to get at hot spots,” Howard said.

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Capt. Tom Probst said the lids of the concrete water cisterns are inspected for signs of tampering just before each summer fire season.

There were several groves of marijuana plants a quarter of a mile to half a mile away from the tapped cistern, about three-quarters up the mountainside far from any roads, Probst said.

The nearest hillside homes are a mile from the farms.

“They must have walked or biked or rode motorcycles to get up there,” Probst said. “There was no way to get a car up there.”

Police also found evidence that the pot farmers had been guarding their crop.

They recovered sleeping bags and found trash hung in trees to avoid attracting animals.

Sniper rifles with scopes and live ammunition also were discovered.

“It’s a bit disturbing, knowing that this is going on near where my family lives,” said Nathan Enson, 26, of Glendale. “There were guys with guns up there -- I hike on those hills.”

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After discovering the stash Tuesday, more than three dozen law enforcement officers spent Wednesday night on the mountain as they prepared the marijuana plants, some 5 feet tall, for removal.

By late Thursday morning, a helicopter had hauled 18 loads down the mountain to the Crescenta Valley County Park parking lot, where they were taken to an undisclosed location to be destroyed.

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andrew.blankstein@ latimes.com

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com


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