The State's Mystery Men Swoop In: Cops Answering to CA's Attorney General are the Marijuana-Eradicating Agents in Mendocino

Attorney General Kamala Harris has had an uneasy relationship with marijuana. As San Francisco's District Attorney, Harris opposed the push to legalize marijuana in California in 2010. Marijuana advocates still campaigned heavily on her behalf during the AG race that fall, claiming the alternative, L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley, was much worse. With her margin of victory a meager 75,000 votes, the state's roughly 750,000 card-carrying medical marijuana patients may have made the difference.

Since her election, Harris has mostly dodged the topic of weed. In the marijuana industry's hour of need during 2011's federal crackdown, Harris punted “clarifications” of state marijuana law to the Legislature. Earlier this year, she laughed off a question from a reporter asking if her stance on legalization had changed. That was on Aug. 5. That same day, in Mendocino County, law enforcement officers working for her state Department of Justice were up in the sky in a rented helicopter, looking for marijuana patches to raid without warrants.

Several farms in Potter Valley were hit that day. One was almost certainly part-time Potrero Hill resident Susan Schindler's. Schindler, a champion marijuana grower who took home a Cannabis Cup award last year for one of her non-psychoactive, low-THC medical strains, was away from her Mendocino plot when she received a frantic phone call from a neighbor. He informed her that men in camouflage had descended from an unmarked helicopter and were cutting down the garden.

The men who visited her 120-acre spread left no paperwork, no search warrants, and no business cards. They also declined to identify themselves, her neighbor says. She has yet to be officially informed who raided her property. All she has is what's left of the plants, which were grown from heirloom genetics developed by master grower Lawrence Ringo. The enormous, tree-sized cannabis plants in cages, all left in place with a precise cut to the plant's stalk at the base, are all now dead and brown, as she later showed off to a reporter from CBS-5.

Farther up the valley, helicopters also paid a visit to a farm belonging to a grower who wants to be identified only as “Ty.” At Ty's plot of land, he tells SF Weekly, the copters deposited men who identified themselves as members of the “Mendocino Major Crimes Task Force,” a state-funded outfit led by Special Agent Richard Russell. After slicing water lines, draining a 500-gallon water tank Ty used for drinking (always a nice touch in a drought), and destroying 50 plants Ty says he had on two separate parcels of land in compliance with county law, the men departed.

Russell, once a member of the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement (which ran anti-weed operations under the banner of CAMP, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, before Brown gutted the BNE's budget in 2011) is now on the state payroll as a prison guard, records show. According to Ty, he claimed no allegiance to anyone but “the state AG's office.” What the men who visited Schindler's garden said — referencing state law of a six-plant maximum, rather than the county limit of 25 and federal law's zero — suggests they were state-level, too.

The anxiety all marijuana growers feel peaks this time of year, when plants begin to blossom into valuable commodities, and when a veritable alphabet soup of various law enforcement agencies takes to the skies: DEA, CAMP, COMMET (County of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Team), state Fish and Wildlife, and local sheriffs.

This year, an additional element was thrown into the mix: private security. A firm called LEAR Asset Management, run by a marijuana-hating Mendocino man active with the local deer hunters' association, won a large contract from a timber company to clear its woodlands of outlaw weed growers. He invited media along during a July junket.

LEAR was initially suspected in the Potter Valley raids due to the paramilitary tactics and attitudes employed, according to growers' accounts — and also due to the fact that no law enforcement agency initially claimed responsibility for the raids.

After Ty snapped a photo of the chopper with its N-number on the tail, both county and state law enforcement have since confirmed the raid. A spokesman for Harris tells SF Weekly that state DOJ officers were in on the operation, but that the entire operation answered to Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman.

Allman's office says that sheriff's deputies participated in the raid, which was a joint operation between them and Russell's task force. In an interview Thursday, Allman says that Russell technically answers to him and four other local lawmen, but that “there's no requirement the state checks in with me.”

As for the cut-and-depart tactics: That's all perfectly legal. The cannabis-eradicators are using the “open fields doctrine,” which means that any marijuana stand not within the “curtilage” of a residence can be destroyed without a warrant after being spotted from the air (ironically, a pot stand can also be cut down if it's too close to a house in Mendocino).

Does Harris know what her people are doing in her name? A Harris spokesman was still checking into Russell's raid at press time. In the meantime, growers who say they are following all the rules are as anxious as they've ever been. Now would be a good time for them to hear from her.

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