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A gang of would-be robbers may have been targeting an old marijuana farm outside Petaluma but went to the wrong house in the middle of the night, foiling what investigators believe was a scheme to steal cannabis in Sonoma County and ship it back to the East Coast.

The cannabis farm, the subject of neighborhood complaints, was abandoned several months ago and is not currently used to grow pot, neighbors said. One said she had long feared the farm would bring violence to the rural enclave of homes west of Petaluma.

“We knew this was going to happen,” said Lisa Delzell, who left the neighborhood in 2015 — in part to get away from the unwanted activity on the farm off Petersen Lane.

Seven men were jailed and one woman remained at large Tuesday as detectives pieced together the sequence of events that led robbers to three Petaluma homes before dawn Monday in a futile search for cannabis.

“What we believe is most likely they would have mailed (marijuana) back to the East Coast if they were successful,” Sonoma County sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum said.

The robbers kicked in the doors of three homes just over the fence from the Petersen Lane property, where neighbors said renters had been growing pot for the better part of a decade.

Delzell said she and several other neighbors complained to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff’s Office, but nothing was ever done.

In 2006, sheriff’s detectives arrested two men there on suspicion of illegal cultivation and seized about 555 marijuana plants of various stages of maturation growing inside an old chicken barn. It is the only criminal investigation into marijuana cultivation at the property dating back 12 years, according to Sheriff’s Office records.

County code enforcement officers visited the property in 2014 following a complaint reporting substandard electrical wiring in a barn for cannabis, records show. Code officers found the electrical wiring was removed and there was no cannabis on site, according to a department spokeswoman.

Delzell said everyone in the neighborhood could see and smell cannabis cultivation at the five-acre property starting about 2006 and continuing until she moved away. She and her husband installed a security system and got a German shepherd dog for protection. They asked the property owner to find different renters to no avail.

“When it was harvest time, we’d see cars with Nevada plates. ... They’d be there for a month or so, then they’d be gone,” Delzell said.

On Tuesday, the Petersen Lane property appeared abandoned behind locked gates. Neighbors said they hadn’t seen any one there for several months.

It was the second time in five weeks that intruders have broken into homes in Sonoma County searching for pot but leaving empty-handed.

“Someone is making the call, someone is giving them addresses, someone is doing the intelligence behind it and ordering up the operation,” Crum said. “But they’re not accurate.”

On Feb. 8, masked intruders broke into two homes on Santa Rosa’s outskirts before dawn. A 42-year-old man was shot and wounded in the arm at a home on Fulton Road, while Jose Luis Torres, 54, was shot and killed at a Melcon Lane home.

The intruders demanded cash and marijuana. None was present at either house, though there was evidence that pot cultivation and sales had previously taken place at the Melcon Lane home, the Sheriff’s Office said.

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On Monday, the band of gunmen parked on Bodega Avenue around 3 a.m., walked up Petersen Lane and — just before they reached the former marijuana farm — kicked down part of a fence to access Eugenia Drive.

Members of the group stormed three homes on Eugenia Drive, kicking in doors and demanding money. At one home a resident was pistol-whipped.

There was no sign of drug sales or cultivation at the homes, Crum said.

The group fled in two rented vehicles, pursued by police into Marin County. Hours later, one man was caught trying to escape in an Uber, three men were apprehended in at a Costco parking lot in Novato and another three men were intercepted by San Francisco police before they got through a security line at San Francisco International Airport, Crum said.

One woman who remains unidentified fled on foot in Novato and remained at large late Tuesday.

Detectives were looking into any possible connection between the eight suspects and five people suspected in the Feb. 8 home invasion robberies in Santa Rosa. Both groups had members from the same East Coast city — Richmond, Virginia.

“Detectives are looking into (the Richmond connection), and also how they’re getting this information (about Sonoma County marijuana), how they’re getting the address, and why they’re coming from certain areas,” Crum said.

The suspects in Monday’s home invasions are scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday in Sonoma County Superior Court on suspicion of robbery of an inhabited dwelling, burglary, false imprisonment, kidnapping and conspiracy. They are: Chrisshawn Denardray Beal, 20, Jaray Day-Shawn Simmons, 28, and Ledarrell Javon Crockett, 28, all from Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and Melvin Corbin, 19, Nakia Robert Lydell Jones, 22, Romello Shamar Jones, 20, and Siddiq Jafar Abdullah, 21, all from Richmond, Virginia.

All were held in lieu of $1 million bail except for Beal, who was held without bail due to a federal warrant out of North Carolina related to felony illegal possession of a firearm, Crum said.

Beal, Corbin and Simmons were arrested at the Novato Costco parking lot.

Crockett was arrested after he knocked on the door of a Novato home and asked the resident to call an Uber, according to Crum. She called police instead.

Nakia Jones, Romello Jones and Abdullah were arrested at the airport about 7 p.m. Monday.

Detectives are examining four handguns found near the vehicles and in the bushes for information about how they were obtained — most likely after the out-of-state group landed in California, Crum said. None of the weapons were registered to the suspects, he said.

Tawnie Logan, Sonoma County Growers Alliance board member, said the robbery has “struck a chord of fear” among cannabis cultivators and others involved in the industry. Logan said they feel vulnerable to theft.

But also, cannabis cultivators fear the fallout from crimes that are unrelated to lawful pot farms but have nevertheless drawn considerable focus from residents opposing outdoor cannabis production in their neighborhoods.

“The neighborhood groups want the whole thing shut down before the program has legs,” Logan said in an interview Tuesday after the issue arose during public comment at a Board of Supervisors meeting. “They’re asking for a total ban in the county … which isn’t going to fix it. There’s a hysteria being built on a lack of facts.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@rossmannreport.

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