Two years ago, officials stumbled on an illegal marijuana crop growing about a mile from a paved road in the Laguna Mountains.
The September 2010 raid netted 28,000 marijuana plants and a cell phone packed with contact names and numbers.
That discovery in turn launched a two-year investigation into illegal marijuana grow operations on federal and state land in San Diego County.
Tens of thousands of illegal marijuana plants were seized in raids on eight covert farms officials said Wednesday.
Some of those farms were in public forests and parks. Agents seized 45,000 illegal marijuana plants in all.
In a news conference held at San Diego’s federal courthouse, U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said investigators tapped more than a dozen phone lines for six months as part of “Operation Mountain High.”
Agents intercepted phone calls between suspects living in Temecula, Perris and Mexico and deciphered the code words used for marijuana ("girls" or "animals") and officials ("green vests" and "bird") while also monitoring the network of grow sites and harvest operations.
Six people were arrested Tuesday as part of the drug trafficking investigation. Four others have been named as defendants in court documents.
The defendants include:
- Daniel Malaquias-Mendoza, of Perris, described as a “high-level manager” who reports directly to bosses in Mexico according to officials
- John Philip Lombardo, of Lakeside, described as a founding and current member of the Saddle Tramps motorcycle gang according to officials
- Antioco-Sotelo-Ayala, of Hemet
- Jose Villa-Garcia, Mexican national
- Francisco Villasenor-Ortiz, of Perris
- Miguel Angel Mendoza-Mendoza of Perris
- Juventino Artemio-Sotelo, of Hemet
- Adrian Chavez-Garduno, of Aguanga
- David Chavez-Garduno, of Temecula
- Roberto Valencia-Martinez, of Perris
Investigators used battery-operated still cameras placed along rural hiking trails and aerial surveillance to document an ongoing system of food and supply deliveries made by David Chavez-Garduno from Temecula to workers dressed in camouflage at several rural grow sites.
Officials also identified two so-called "stash houses" used to store the marijuana once it was harvested. The two locations were Sam’s Garage at 13455 Highway 8, El Cajon and a home at 32340 Menifee Road, Menifee in Riverside County according to court documents.
On Tuesday, Drug Enforcement Administration agents served a warrant at a Lakeside home. Federal officials were spotted at the home near the corner of Rio Corto and Vista Camino Drive.
Officials said the Lakeside raid was one of several search warrants served Tuesday. In total, investigators reported seizing guns, money, cars, and marijuana with a street value of more than $300,000.
Among the farms discovered:
- Charlot Canyon Grow on Julian-BLM Land, Sept 2010
- Benton Grow on Riverside-BLM Land, Aug 2011
- Farmer Grow in Julian, Nov 2011
- Pala Grow in Valley Center, June 2012
- Triste's Grow on Pala-BLM land, Aug 2012
- Palomar Mountain Raid, Aug 2012
- Sunrise Grow in Julian-Cleveland National Forest, Sept 2012
- Vineyard Grow in Cleveland National Forest, Oct 2012
The growers not only smuggled undocumented immigrants into the U.S. to work on the crops but they also used illegal pesticides and herbicides according to investigators.
"Operation Mountain High" was described as “one of most comprehensive investigations ever in regards to growing marijuana outdoors” in a written release.
Duffy said the arrests go a long way in protecting innocent people, who have nothing to do with buying, selling or using marijuana.
"Like landowners whose property abuts these parks and forests, and hikers and other individuals who go to these areas for recreation and getaways. It protects them from running into and often times people have encountered these armed and dangerous individuals who are operating these groves," Duffy said.