After a few similar discoveries, deputies find O.C.'s biggest marijuana farm ever: about 20,000 plants.
By David Reyes, Times Staff Writer
September 21, 2006

Orange County's reputation is solidly built on conservative politics and master planned communities, but after a discovery by sheriff's deputies late Tuesday, there could be a new distinction: marijuana farming.

Deputies said they are startled by the repeat discoveries of pot farms flourishing in the county's hillsides and canyons, including Tuesday afternoon's raid on what authorities say is the largest marijuana farm ever discovered in the county — with an estimated street value of $12.5 million.

"Two weeks ago we found 4,000 plants, and now we have this discovery that we believe is 18,000 to 20,000 marijuana plants," said sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino.

The latest find was along the western edge of O'Neill Regional Park, just beyond the perimeter of a gated community of million-dollar homes. The plantation was spotted from a sheriff's helicopter on patrol about 3 p.m. near Sunrise street in Mission Viejo.

Initially, only a few thousand plants were found, but when narcotics investigators returned at daybreak Wednesday, they followed an irrigation system feeding into seven to eight distinct patches, Amormino said.

"It appears they were tapping into a local homeowners association water supply," he said.

Deputies also found an encampment where they seized two loaded .22-caliber rifles, he said.

On Sept. 9, about 4,000 plants were found in Silverado Canyon, valued at $1 million. In August, about 1,000 plants were found off Ortega Highway, and hundreds of plants were found inside a San Clemente home.

The recent outdoor discoveries are probably linked and the work of a group or criminal cartel, Amormino said.

The discoveries parallel a statewide law enforcement trend of having dramatically increased seizures this year.

The state Department of Justice's decades-old Campaign Against Marijuana Planting announced Sept. 7 that law enforcement had eradicated 1.2 million illegally cultivated marijuana plants, worth $4.9 billion, so far this year.

The number surpassed the prior record of 1.1 million plants worth $4.5 billion, set in 2005, said Aaron Carruthers, a state attorney general's spokesman.

Law enforcement officers, other than CAMP agents, have brought in an additional $425 million worth of marijuana plants this year, he said.

Given the size of the O'Neill park pot farm, it is clear the cultivators were growing the plants for distribution, said Gilbert Geis, professor emeritus in criminology, law and society at UC Irvine.

"People are otherwise dependent on getting marijuana from Mexico," Geis said. For criminals, he said, "it makes sense to grow it domestically" as long as they feel the penalties are not excessive and the chances of getting caught are slim.

The counties with the highest number of illegally cultivated pot plants in 2006 were Shasta and Lake in Northern California. Shasta had 204,571 plants worth $818 million, and Lake had 186,327 plants worth $745 million.

Officials said it was unclear whether the string of pot farm discoveries in Orange County's undeveloped foothills is part of a trend or coincidence. But investigators point to dry weather in Northern California and tighter security on the Mexican border, making it "harder to bring marijuana into the United States," Amormino said.

What makes the latest discovery unusual, he said, is that the plants are near the Stone Ridge development in Mission Viejo, a gated community of homes costing more than $1.5 million each.

Until this year, the largest seizure of pot plants in Orange County was 5,000 taken during a raid several years ago in Trabuco Canyon, Amormino said.