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Sonoma County sheriff's deputies Tuesday apprehended five men suspected in a home-invasion robbery as the men fled a rural property on the northwestern slope of Hood Mountain.

The wooded property east of Santa Rosa has been the site of an artists collective and what the founders described as a nonprofit medical cannabis farm designed to support its art programs.

Detectives were investigating whether the marijuana was the target of the armed men involved in the morning robbery, Sheriff's Lt. Steve Brown said.

The robbery also brought the scale of the pot farm to the attention of detectives, who suspect the level of marijuana production at the Cougar Lane property was illegal. They arrested the resident who placed the frantic 911 call, Brown said.

The Sheriff's Office released no details about what, if anything, was taken during the robbery and how much marijuana was being grown on the property weren't available Tuesday. Deputies remained on the scene 10 hours after the morning robbery, investigating the invasion and eradicating the pot gardens.

The incident started with an 8:05 a.m. call from resident John Orgon, 44, who, calling from the second floor of the house, whispered to dispatchers that five armed men were downstairs, Brown said. Four people staying at the home also were downstairs, some sleeping, he said.

Orgon previously has identified his first name as Jaohn in newspaper articles about the collective.

The armed men encountered at least some of the guests and then left.

The guests later told deputies they worked at the ranch trimming marijuana, cooking and performing other duties.

No one was injured, Brown said.

A deputy responding to the call intercepted five men in two vehicles as they drove away from the Cougar Lane house on the private one-lane road off Los Alamos Road.

The suspects also had a dog with them, Brown said.

After backup arrived, including a Santa Rosa police canine unit and a CHP surveillance plane, the five men were detained in patrol cars and arrested.

Those arrested on suspicion of robbery and conspiracy included David Ortiz, 47, of Sebastopol; two Vallejo residents, Charles Hewitt, 50, and Mario Ratliff, 41; and two men who appeared to be transients, Kurt Wiepert, 45, and Richard Heuser, 35, Brown said.

The men were identified as suspects by witnesses in the home as well as through surveillance images taken by a camera on the property.

All the men were in custody late Tuesday at the Sonoma County Jail.

Deputies smelled marijuana near the vehicles and waited until a judged signed a search warrant to look inside, Brown said.

It was unclear Tuesday what deputies found in the car.

After the men were detained, Orgon told the Sheriff's Office that the gates were locked and that deputies were not welcome on the property, Brown said.

"We were concerned since it was an armed robbery, there could be victims of the robbery who were injured," Brown said. "We had to check the welfare of the people there and conduct the robbery investigation."

Deputies hiked a mile up the road, broke through two locked gates and entered the property, finding "a large outdoor grow operation around the house and property," Brown said.

Two of the guests fled on foot, and deputies interviewed three people on site, including Orgon, Brown said.

Orgon was arrested on suspicion of marijuana cultivation and possession for sale, Brown said.

Orgon and a partner, Kirsha Kaechele, bought the 120-acre property around 2004. In 2010, they started running twin nonprofit organizations, American Medicinals and the Life Is Art Foundation, from the site. The decade-old foundation previously had been located in New Orleans.

Kaechele told The Press Democrat in a 2010 story that they grew marijuana for member patients to support the nonprofit.

Members of the collective couldn't be reached Tuesday.

The project garnered national attention for its novel attempt to use medicinal marijuana production to support a nonprofit art program, although the legality of the effort was unclear.

The hilly region five miles north of Highway 12 and east of Santa Rosa's Skyhawk neighborhood is known for marijuana gardens.

In 2008, Sonoma County drug agents seized 27,000 plants worth an estimated $60 million in the area.

On Tuesday, a neighbor told a reporter he was aware of a pot-growing operation on the site.

"That guy grows every year," said the neighbor, who gave his name as Aaron. "Everyone on the mountain knows it."

He said he has seen individuals accessing the property who he assumed were garden workers.

"I have seen weird-looking people that I have never seen before going up there," he said. "Every now and then I see them. I figured they were helping hands."

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.

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