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.
"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.
He brings the pistol and a rifle when he walks on his land. He said he's confronted growers and pulled out three miles of drip irrigation line they'd put in.
Greater force also is being employed by local, state and federal authorities. On a raid Wednesday near Laytonville in Mendocino County, a task force of more than 60 officers served a search warrant on private property. A helicopter was standing by.
The result: a gun battle at one pot garden, a fatal shooting of a suspect at a second garden and the arrests of four people at a residence.
Allman<NO1>, the Mendocino County sheriff,<NO> said the operation reflected the greater reliance on intelligence gathering. In this instance, agents believed an organized crime operation was involved on the 574-acre property, called Mendocino Magic.
The two gardens they found were relatively small, with about 2,400 marijuana plants seized. But there was nothing inauspicious about the confrontation.
Federal drug agents monitoring organized crime have been warning local authorities that increasing violence surrounding the marijuana trade may spill into Northern California.
Sonoma County officials have begun treating marijuana eradication efforts like SWAT operations, Sonoma County Sheriff's Capt. Matt McCaffrey said. "Chopping plants" used to be a less dangerous operation, he said.
"These aren't the same marijuana gardens as 20 years ago," McCaffrey said.
The attitude of the pot garden tenders has changed, said Bob Nishiyama, head of the Mendocino Major Crimes Task Force, which includes officers from the Sheriff's Office, city of Fort Bragg, Ukiah and Willits and the CHP.
They used to drop their guns and run when officers arrived. "Now, they hang on to them (guns), turn around and shoot. It's nuts," Nishiyama said.