Illegal Marijuana Grows Causing Problems in Calaveras County

CALAVERAS -- Illegal marijuana grows have flourished in Calaveras County for decades.

Most of them are hidden in the forests of the foothills, but the trouble stretches across the county. Violent crimes, including robbery and aggravated assault, have been on the rise.

Data from the California Department of Justice shows in 2008, there were 93 reported cases of violent crime. By 2017, that number shot up to 208 cases, an increase of 124 percent.

Sheriff Rick Dibasilio believes marijuana grows are to blame.

"The problem is that it brings in that black market, bad element into our community," Dibasilio told FOX40.

Marijuana crops can represent millions of dollars in cash and Dibasilio says they attract criminals who would do anything to get their hands on it.

"A bad guy comes up out of the valley 'cause he knows that he has an illegal grow he can go to, and he steals their marijuana to sell it on the black market, hence the six guys up in Murphys," Dibasilio said.

In June, six victims were beaten and tortured in an armed robbery. Dibasilio says the robbers targeted the victims because they had marijuana, a lot of it.

"They ended up with $30,000 in cash, they ended up with either 50 or 100 processed pounds of marijuana," Dibasilio said. “100 pounds of marijuana, if they take it out of state, they get $2,000 to $3,000 a pound. That's a lot of money."

As the crime rate went up, the number of officers went down.

"When we had the crunch of 2008, we saw our numbers really decline,” Dibasilio said.

The number of sworn-in law enforcement officers in Calaveras Country dropped by 16 percent in the last 10 years. Last year, there were only 58 officers to cover the entire county, which is more than 1,000 square miles.

"We're a rural county. Pay is a lot lower for our guys. They can go across the river and make more money," Dibasilio added.

It was money that pushed Calaveras County to approve legal marijuana grows in 2016, following the economic devastation of the Butte Fire. But in January of 2018, following complaints of increasing crime and environmental damage, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors outlawed all commercial grows.

"This is the aftermath of people continuing to grow thinking they are going to get away with it," Dibasilio said.

Jerry Garcia supports the ban, calling the small community, West Point, home. The serene landscape lured him 45 years ago.

"Fresh air and quietness, as you notice," Garcia said.

But he says the influx of marijuana grows “legal or not” changed the town.

"Everybody knew everybody and they respected what they had, and all that sort. And there was no need to lock your door. No need at all," Garcia added.

Garcia says the change has led to more people locking their doors, but Laura Alkema disagrees.

"I've not seen an influx in crime. I've never felt scared at home, never felt scared here at night,” Alkema said.

The local restaurant owner and mother of three believes legal grows have their benefits; she saw it herself.

"It increased our sales probably, I would guess, about 25 to 30 percent," Alkema said.

But now, business is suffering because of the ban on legal grows.

"This county needs something and I feel like these people that moved there, they moved there with their families. They weren`t here to destroy the properties, the ones who were doing it legally. They were here to provide for their families," Alkema added.

But Dibasilio knows he and his team need to stay vigilant on the ground and in the air.

"There's probably still, I would imagine, about 500 illegal grows out there that we're aware of. When our guys do flyovers, it’s still a sea of green up in this area,” Dibasilio said.

He plans to stay focused and aggressive, knowing that as soon as one illegal crop comes down, another is growing.

The ban on commercial marijuana grows in Calaveras County went into effect in June. Sheriff Debasilio tells FOX40 at that time, there were roughly 700 legal grows and about 1,500 illegal operations.

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