DALLAS,Tex. — Acting on a tipster's call to Grand Prairie police Friday, federal agents went looking for 200 to 300 marijuana plants amid dense thickets along the suburb's border with Dallas.
By Saturday morning, investigators had uncovered 10,451 marijuana plants worth up to $5 million – the biggest drug crop ever found in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Federal agents took a break after pulling up marijuana plants Saturday near Grand Prairie's Reagan Middle School. Some of the plants were only 200 yards from Grand Prairie's Ronald W. Reagan Middle School. Investigators don't know who planted them.
"It's a pretty sophisticated operation," said Jim Capra, special agent in charge of the DEA's Dallas office. "It's not a one-man job. They cleared areas, dug irrigation canals and set up a campsite."
The plants – some of them 8 feet tall – were spread across three separate fields deep inside 5-plus acres of a heavily wooded property owned by Oncor Electric Delivery.
It was the third marijuana farm found in the Dallas area this month, a total the DEA called unusual. On July 12, DEA agents found 325 pot plants a few hundred yards from their office near Spur 482 and Stemmons Freeway. A day earlier, Richardson police found 1,100 marijuana plants inside a house.
Police found marijuana plants near Grand Prairie's Reagan Middle School. In the latest find, the most mature marijuana plants had been growing at least three months, but the operation probably goes back much further.
"We doubt they'd plant this significant a grow the first time," DEA spokeswoman Terry Wyatt said. "They usually don't start this big. They probably started with one plot, went undetected, did well and came back and planted more."
Agent Capra said evidence at the campsite gave investigators some clues to who was harvesting the plants. He declined to describe the evidence, but the campsite – hidden under a black tarp – included a propane tank, sleeping bags, tents, fresh trash and lots of food supplies.
"We got some good leads out there," Agent Capra said. "We're hopeful."
The fields' sophistication makes it unlikely to be a mom-and-pop-gone-bad operation, investigators said. The drug harvesters had connected 1-inch-thick PVC pipes to a creek to keep the plants watered.
The fields' location and structure made detection difficult. Much of the land is so dense with vegetation that visitors would need to cut their own paths. The surrounding area is largely undeveloped.
Whoever planted the fields also knew to avoid cutting out a large canopy that could be spotted easily from the air. The fields were spread across 10 plots, and the plants blended in with surrounding greenery.
"Unless you know what you're looking for, you can walk through marijuana plants and think they're milkweed," Agent Capra said.
On Saturday, 50 investigators from 10 law enforcement agencies dug up the plants by hand. Marijuana plants have deep root systems, making the work difficult.
The property starts at the southwest corner of Belt Line and Camp Wisdom roads and goes south. There's a subdivision of modern, two-story brick houses on the south end next to the middle school.
"It never crosses your mind that you got something like that so close," said Billy Crowder, a postal worker who's lived in the neighborhood two years. "It's a nice area, but the way the world is today, nothing surprises me."
Oncor owns the land as a right of way for a future transmission line, but with nothing there now, employees have little reason to make visits.
"There's no way we would know what goes on in that specific area," Oncor spokeswoman Carol Peters said.
After digging up the plants Saturday, investigators wrapped them inside blue tarps. Bulldozers cleared the way for all-terrain vehicles to haul off the tarps, which were then emptied into a U-Haul truck. The DEA plans to burn the plants except for a few samples it will keep as evidence.
Agents trucked off about 30 percent of the plants Saturday and expect to return this morning to finish. Dallas and Grand Prairie police planned to guard the area overnight.
"There's 10,000 pounds of marijuana that won't hit the streets," Agent Capra said, "and $4 to $5 million not going into the pockets of some drug organization."
Copyright Dallas Morning News 2007
Record-size drug fields found in Dallas, Tex.