Tales of mysterious men in black or camouflage dropping from helicopters into legal marijuana gardens, cutting the plants, then disappearing with nary a word to the growers, have been spreading fear among Mendocino County pot cultivators.

Many believe the intruders are private, paramilitary security officers conducting vigilante anti-pot operations, but the real story likely is less intriguing, according to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office.

The County of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Team (COMMET) has been conducting operations in the same Laytonville area — near Woodman Creek — where the mystery men have been reported, and likely is the source of the rumors, sheriff’s officials said. Sheriff’s deputies have been using a private helicopter service that would not be immediately recognizable as working with law enforcement, officials said.

Sheriff Tom Allman said he would investigate the allegations further if any victims come forward with evidence. So far, he’s been provided only secondhand information from about 10 people, he said.

“I don’t know if it’s true or it’s an urban legend. I’m certainly trying to find out the truth,” Allman said.

Sheriff’s Capt. Greg Van Patten said his department has conducted pot raids in the Woodman Creek area since late July.

They were initiated by reports that marijuana growers in the area were draining the creek to water their crops, a problem that has been sharpened by the drought and has been widely reported in Mendocino and Humboldt counties.

COMMET officers on July 23 eradicated 2,630 plants from no less than 15 sites, Van Patten said. All those gardens were out of compliance with the county’s medical marijuana regulations, he said.

The regulations include limiting the number of pot plants to a maximum of 25 per parcel and requiring medical recommendations. Some of the gardens were being grown on federal property overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, which is illegal, Van Patten said. One of the gardens had been eradicated multiple times before, he said.

On Aug. 4, COMMET and officers from the Ukiah Police Department and the Mendocino County Probation Department served a warrant at the end of Woodman Creek at the Eel River.

They found and eradicated almost 2,500 plants from up to 10 sites, Van Patten said. Those gardens also were out of compliance with the county’s pot rules, he said.

People who have contacted The Press Democrat about stealth pot-cutting operations said it’s suspicious that pot plants were cut and then left behind, but Allman said that’s common this time of year, prior to the plants’ development of buds, the valuable part.

“It’s of no value” before then, he said.

Only one person directly affected by the operations was willing to be interviewed, and only on condition of anonymity. The people providing secondhand reports also did not want to be identified, saying they feared retaliation.

The eyewitness said he was legally growing 13 plants in the Eel River canyon that were cut down Wednesday by men in black who were lowered by rope from a helicopter. He said he was on his way out and did not stay to see who they were.

Neither COMMET officers nor the people who work for the private security company that has been blamed for the raids wear black.

The owner of the security company, Lear Asset Management, said he’s dismayed by the accusations.

The company does marijuana garden cleanups and eradication operations on private property, but only at the request of the property owners, Paul Trouette said.

“It’s absolutely, definitely not us,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com.