Neighbors: Old marijuana farm may have been target of Petaluma home invaders
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 5-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 anyone 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.
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.