07/26/2007

Ill. authorities bust, then burn $10M worth of pot

By Jeff Long
The Chicago Tribune

COOK COUNTY, Ill. In a Cook County forest preserve, about 200 yards from a highway commuters hum along every day, authorities uncovered an elaborate marijuana-growing operation, with 6-foot-tall plants nearly ready to harvest and campsites stocked with beer, canned food, insect repellent and, on one cot, a copy of High Times magazine.

On Tuesday, as an Illinois National Guard helicopter circled above the Crabtree Nature Center Forest Preserve near northwest suburban Barrington, federal agents joined local police in chopping and burning as many as 30,000 marijuana plants found last month when a Forest Preserve District intern researching foxes encountered three men and an irrigation system.

Marijuana crops have been found on public land before, but nothing of this scale, said Richard Waszak, chief of the Cook County Forest Preserve police. Officials described the find as "one of the nation's largest illegal cannabis cultivation schemes."

"This, quite frankly, is the most sophisticated operation that we've seen," Waszak said.

Coyote urine had been hung in a tree to ward off plant-munching animals, and a sump pump and generator were used to siphon water from a pond to irrigate the illegal crops at one of the 11 marijuana fields found in the preserve. Officials feared booby traps, but careful searches have found none.

The plants were growing in clearings in a heavily wooded area relatively remote from hiking trails and other areas used by the public. The preserve popular with birders, who have spotted 263 different species sits in the northwest corner of Cook County on rolling landscape shaped by glaciers, not far from the multimillion-dollar mansions in Barrington and neighboring Barrington Hills.

"This is a cash crop," said Waszak, as officers prepared to set portions of the field ablaze. "They're damaging public property. We're not happy about it. This is the most sacred of our property the preserves."

The difficulty in bringing marijuana across the U.S. border has led to more homegrown operations, officials said. Waszak added that growing the crops on public land protects the operators from laws that allow authorities to confiscate homes, vehicles and other property in drug cases.

Two 23-year-old Mexican immigrants Bernardo Rangel, who carried a permanent resident card, and Jose Verra, who officials said was in the country illegally have been charged in the ongoing investigation, authorities said.

Each was charged with felony counts of cultivating marijuana and criminal damage to land, as well as misdemeanor criminal trespass, authorities said

An unidentified intern doing research on foxes for the Forest Preserve District encountered three men and the irrigation system June 10 and alerted forest preserve police.

"We depend on people to call us, and tell us" if they notice suspicious activity, Waszak said.

After the camp was discovered, police searched the area by air June 29, finding the other fields among wooded areas of the preserve.

On July 10, after setting up surveillance, officers found Rangel and Verra, who were wearing camouflage clothing, and arrested them.

Addresses for the two men were not available. After a hearing in the Rolling Meadows branch of Cook County Circuit Court, Rangel posted $40,000 bail and was released, authorities said.

Verra was in the county jail.

Rangel and Verra do not appear to be the masterminds, Waszak and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials said. The investigation is continuing.

On Tuesday, officials showed reporters head-high marijuana plants arranged in neat rows, carefully fertilized, about a month shy of being ready for harvest. The street value of the crops could be as high as $10 million, said a spokesman for the Forest Preserve District.

About 50 police officers and as many as 30 Forest Preserve District workers fanned into the 1,650-acre preserve at 11 a.m. Tuesday and began tearing down the plants, dousing them with an accelerant and burning the piles atop wooden shipping pallets.

Finishing the job could take as long as two days, Waszak said.

Authorities think the marijuana had been planted a month or two before it was discovered, but Waszak could not pinpoint the date.

"You have distinct rows of plants, just like at a farm," Waszak said. "It took some time and a lot of effort."

Waszak did not know the last time a forest preserve caretaker or forest preserve police officers, who regularly search for illegal crops, had been near the site.

The growers tended their crops from three campsites around the fields, which had been cleared of trees and bushes to make way for the marijuana. At one of the campsites, evidence of a prolonged stay included empty cans of Modelo Especial beer, tins of corned beef, mixed vegetables and other food, and Deep Woods Off mosquito repellent.

"It's obvious they were living here, with the dishes, the pots, the pans," Waszak said.

A tattered copy of High Times magazine lay on one of the cots in a three-man tent.

"They did a lot of work to set this marijuana-grow up," said Gary Olenkiewicz, special agent in charge of the DEA's Chicago field office.

Copyright 2007 The Chicago Tribune

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