Dozens of combat-clad police officers, deputies and federal agents swarmed a southwest Santa Rosa neighborhood Wednesday morning in the region's largest-ever operation against residential marijuana gardens.
A team of 150 law enforcement officers raided 32 homes off Moorland Avenue immediately south of the Corby Auto Mall, where the pungent smell of marijuana hung heavily in the air and backyard marijuana plants towered over fences in plain view from the street.
Law officials, who suspected gang involvement with at least some of the gardens, arrested 13 people on a variety of drug and weapons charges and seized more than 300 plants from 32 locations, said Sonoma County sheriff's Lt. Dennis O'Leary.
The raids began about 9 a.m. when FBI agents in full military gear ordered residents to leave, then rushed into their homes, most of them modest multi-plex units.
Soon the area was punctuated by the sounds of exploding flash grenades at several homes in the neighborhood, which is bordered by Highway 101 on the east and railroad tracks on the west.
After the homes were secured, officers carrying search warrants poured into backyards and uprooted hundreds of marijuana plants, piling the 6- to 8-foot-tall plants into giant heaps in driveways as neighbors watched.
The operation was planned after a recent complaint about rampant pot cultivation in the neighborhood, O'Leary said. A sheriff's helicopter surveyed the area and discovered more than two-dozen marijuana gardens in the backyards of homes along Barbara Drive, Eddy Drive, Robin Way and Neville Way.
"We just looked into this neighborhood and, literally, probably every backyard but two or three have a (marijuana) grow," O'Leary said. "Our goal is to go in there to rid the neighborhood of these, what we think are probably illegal grows."
One resident was not surprised when she learned the purpose of the raid.
"The whole street smells like weed," said the woman, who asked not to be identified.
She said she was awakened by officers outside a neighbor's unit screaming, "Open the door!" She arose and looked out to see "the street was full of FBI, SWAT, everything."
Participants included personnel from the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office, Probation Department and District Attorney's Office, Santa Rosa Police Department, California Highway Patrol, the FBI and federal departments of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Many of the marijuana gardens were still visible Wednesday as authorities worked their way down the block to remove them. The bright-green plants peeked over the tops of fences, easily visible from the sidewalk. It was all so obvious, several residents said, that they knew authorities would eventually show up.
"It was going to happen sooner or later," said one resident, identifying herself only as Anna.
The staging ground for the operation was the parking lot of the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building. Just before 9 a.m., a long line of FBI and sheriff's SUVs, trucks, patrol cars and large assault vehicles snaked out of the parking lot and onto Highway 12, then southbound 101.
At the Corby Avenue exit, a patrol car stopped cross traffic to allow the motorcade to stream through red signals.
Onlookers said an FBI team dressed in fatigues and helmets and carrying an assortment of battering rams, shields, ladders and weapons first entered a residence on Moorland Avenue at Barbara Drive.