Pot farm suspects freed on bond
All 14 suspects arrested Monday in an illegal marijuana farm bust outside of Rifle have bonded out of jail, and Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario expects that many of them won’t show up again in court.
As federal prosecutors consider moving the case to U.S. District Court, an investigation continues into whether the 14, all Chinese nationals, were victims of forced labor.
A joint operation by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team uncovered the illegal marijuana farm on 30 to 40 acres, where they found what’s now estimated at about 2,600 marijuana plants.
An anonymous call to the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office tipped authorities off to a marijuana grow on Mile Pond Road just east of Rifle.
At the property, officers saw men loading what appeared to be marijuana into a U-Haul truck leaving the property following a yellow Camaro. When authorities stopped the U-Haul for traveling 7 mph over the speed limit, they discovered the moving truck packed with marijuana.
While officers were waiting on a search warrant at the property, they saw what they believed was an attempt to destroy evidence and several people fleeing on foot, according to a sheriff’s report.
Officers found many of them hiding in the fields and amongst the brush. Those found were arrested, along with people found in the U-Haul and Camaro. But officers also saw around half-a-dozen more people escape the property on foot.
After being arrested, one suspect was hesitant to talk to investigators about the illegal marijuana grow where he’d been working because, he told officers, he didn’t know if the owners were connected to violent people, according to an arrest affidavit. He told investigators he was hired to trim marijuana plants at $200 per day.
After only a couple of days in jail, that man and the 13 other suspects bonded out of the Garfield County jail.
They were all initially held without bond. Judge John Neiley lowered all their bonds during advisements Wednesday, and by Thursday they were all out of jail. Most of them had their bonds reduced to $1,500 cash/surety bonds, but a few received higher bonds, the highest being $10,000.
The U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado is contemplating moving this case into federal court, said Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney.
But Vallario anticipates several of these suspects disappearing before then – though others might have roots in the community.
The DEA is leading the case, but other federal agencies have been involved as well, including the FBI and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Many of them were believed to be in the country illegally, but none had an ICE hold when they were released, said the sheriff.
If that turns out that the workers were subjected to forced labor, it would hardly be surprising, said AnnJanette Alegano-Steele, a co-founder and training director of the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking, based out of Denver.
The combination of forced labor, drug production and Chinese nationals are common in conjunction in Colorado’s human trafficking patterns, she said.
Drug production is a crime that often parallels human trafficking. Corridors that are known drug routes – Interstate 70 or Interstate 25 – are the same routes for human trafficking, she said.
Undocumented immigrants are also frequently a population vulnerable to forced labor.
“That possibility is something that we always keep in mind when we find foreign nationals in a group working in some illegal enterprise,” said Vallario.
But the sheriff isn’t so sure that’s the case anymore.
Investigators aren’t finding any more evidence that this is a case of forced labor. “We don’t have any of them saying, ‘Thank god you saved me,’ or any evidence that they were being abused or that they were being forced to work,” he said.
But the sheriff and other agencies want to understand the organization “past the lower-level folks, climbing the ladder as high as we can, and cut the head off the snake,” he said.
Investigators are also looking into the owners of the property and its history. The sheriff has said this marijuana farm could have been in operation for as long as two years.
“Someone out there is the head of this operation, and we’re going to pursue them to take down as high a level person as we can,” said Vallario
Colorado has seen an increase in these types of illegal marijuana grows, and the U.S. attorney has been taking more such cases into the federal courts, said Dorschner.
“We are seeing an increase in individuals and criminal enterprises hiding in plain sight — literally taking over neighborhoods to grow marijuana with the purpose of distributing that marijuana out of state,” he said.
In the meantime, the sheriff’s office has already reviewed a couple more tips from the community about suspected illegal marijuana farms, said Vallario.
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