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North Coast pot gardens grow deadly

  • Andres Palomino, pulls out marijuana plants, Sunday August 8, 2010 in the mountains above Sweetwater Springs Road west of Healdsburg. After a lengthy hike through coastal wilderness, a group of eight friends and neighbors located a camp and a marijuana grove under a canopy of manzanita. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2010

For decades, drug agents and illicit marijuana growers have engaged in a delicate game of cat and mouse in the rugged, remote forests of the North Coast.

Authorities would swoop in to destroy a crop, only to find that the growers had faded into the wilderness.

But that predictable pattern has been shattered this summer in violent confrontations that have left five suspected marijuana growers dead in four Northern California counties in the past seven weeks. It is an unparalleled level of violence in the 20-year history of coordinated marijuana eradication efforts.

Sonoma County's Hidden Pot Gardens

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"It's not the way it used to be," said Mendocino County Sheriff's Lt. Rusty Noe, who has led that county's marijuana team for eight years. Two of the fatal pot field shootings involved deputies from his department.

"We don't want any more dead marijuana growers. But we're not going to stop doing our job either," said Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman.

Why the sudden escalation?

A complex set of forces probably are at play, authorities said. The theories include the increasing influence of ever-more-violent Mexican drug cartels, more aggressive law enforcement tactics and the sheer proliferation of large-scale pot operations.

The bottom line is that law enforcement officers, hunters, hikers, ranchers and others who frequent the backcountry are facing greater and greater risks.

<NO1><NO>"We're all just sick of it," said Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown, who has been subjected to illegal pot cultivation on his ranchland.

"I sleep with a 44-magnum pistol lying next to me," said Gary Gillette, 61, a Sonoma County resident who lives on 152 acres off Ida Clayton Road, about 25 miles northeast of downtown Santa Rosa.


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