Watch the Skies: Unmarked Helicopters Are Supposedly Cutting Down Legal Pot Grows in Mendocino


Watch the Skies

His weathered face and his whitening hair make Butch Small look older than his 58 years. He looks better than he should, according to the doctors who told him two years ago that he'd soon die from a combination of hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver. He'd been sober a quarter-century, he says, but the booze kept stalking him. It was marijuana that saved him: High-CBD strains grown by his neighbor in Mendocino County's remote Potter Valley turned his yellowed skin back to normal, and, “had me springing out of bed at 7 in the morning feeling great.”

A refugee from the city, escaping to the wilderness in search of health and solace, dependent on the marijuana industry in more ways than one: Small is a typical Mendocino County character. And like most people in the Emerald Triangle, he has a deep mistrust of authorities.

Which was only reinforced one morning in early August when he saw a helicopter, all black, with no identifying insignia, dipping into valleys around his spread “like a bumblebee,” he says, dropping men in camouflage fatigues onto a nearby plot of land belonging to a timber company. The helicopter brought up a load of cut-down pot plants. Small watched as the helicopter cleared that grow and then another before it zoomed overhead and dropped down on his neighbor's land, where that year's high-CBD crop, 55 plants on two parcels of land, was reaching maturity. By the time Small jumped in his truck and sped over to his neighbor's ranch, the men were on the ground and cutting down the legal plants, he claims.

Everyone in pot country knows the drill. Law enforcement officers are supposed to identify themselves by name or badge number, provide a business card, or leave behind documentation when destroying a pot garden.

These men, he says, repeating the story he told over Labor Day weekend to the county sheriff and a meeting of 100 graying longhairs like him, had no badges. The only identification presented was one man pulling up a sleeve to show the words “POLICE” stenciled on a thermal top.

That was troubling. “This is unincorporated land,” he says, rattling off DEA, U.S. Forest Service, and Mendocino County Sheriff's deputies as the local lawmen. “We've never had a quote-unquote policeman up here.”

So who were they? They may have been the same mysterious crew that's accused of ripping up supposedly legal grows all over Mendocino County this summer.

For years, the primeval woods in Mendocino, Trinity, and Humboldt counties have been forbidden territory. Unsafe for civilians and a risk even for the heavily armed law enforcement in military helicopters, the pristine forests were “under attack,” U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag told reporters in 2011, by the outlaw marijuana grows hidden underneath the redwoods.

So, that year, a massive Justice Department operation called “Full Court Press” cut down 460,000 plants on 56 illegal grow sites in the Mendocino National Forest.

This summer? Nothing. At least in Mendocino County, “There's no marijuana on public lands this year,” Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said at a public meeting.

That does not mean the outlaw growers have all gone home. Some have snuck onto private land owned by timber companies or property owners — who, on some occasions, have hired paramilitary-style private security forces to clear them out.

One company, LEAR Asset Management, has quite a reputation in Mendocino. LEAR's men are outfitted in camo indistinguishable from real cops. Riding into battle in a rented helicopter, they've cut down many illegal gardens this summer, and have boasted about it in interviews to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. But they have denied cutting down legal gardens in the way Small describes.

Meanwhile, under a new ordinance in Lake County, marijuana “out of compliance” with local law can be chopped down by police without warning. Homeowners are supposed to be notified of an impending visit from cops, but several growers have returned home to find locks pried open and gardens destroyed, says attorney Joe Elford, who's filed suit against the cops on behalf of bereft gardeners.

Police can legally cut down a marijuana garden without a knock or search warrant under what's called the “open fields doctrine.” Unlike a private home, undeveloped property does not enjoy “shelter from government interference or surveillance.” Cops who use a helicopter or Google Maps to discover a pot grow can raid the cannabis patch as long as they can't identify a nearby residence… and in heavily forested, mountainous land, is a cabin 1,000 feet away a “residence?”

Back in Mendocino, the mystery continues. Wild tales circulate every summer, as anyone who's spent time in weed country knows. But at least “15-20” others like Small are telling the exact same story about unidentified choppers, one industry representative tells me. “Something is happening for sure,” he says.

A spokeswoman for the DEA says her agency isn't doing it. And Mendocino Sheriff Allman says it isn't his boys, either. Could it be U.S. Forest Service, California Department of Justice? The official word, at least, is no.

Someone is cutting down weed in Mendocino County. For once, the police aren't the suspects.

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