A fatal shooting by sheriff's deputies at a marijuana farm in the eastern hills of Santa Clara County marked what could be the latest encounter between authorities and a proliferation of large-scale marijuana farming driven by the Mexican drug trade.
Before a raid Wednesday morning in the hills above Mines Road, three deputies from the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office shot and killed an armed Latino man as they were scouting near a large marijuana farm, sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Rick Sung said.
Deputies said the man refused orders to drop his rifle and pointed its muzzle at authorities, after which they opened fire. He attempted to regain control of his weapon, at which point the deputies fired a second round of shots, killing him, Sung said.
The farm in question contained about 20,000 marijuana plants with an estimated street value of more than $60 million, and law enforcement officials were still at the scene Thursday.
One local official said the size of the operation strongly suggests that, rather than a local operation, the farm could be linked to Mexican drug cartels that the law enforcement officials have said are responsible for as many as nine out of 10 large-scale marijuana growing operations in the country.
This trade has increased in the region since post-Sept. 11 efforts to secure the United States' southern border, which encouraged some drug organizations to move away from direct transport over the border. Their operations have found a home in rural California, including eastern Santa Clara County, which is largely undeveloped and lightly populated.
Patrick Congdon, general manager of the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, has spent decades working in the area, and he says the marijuana farm problem has grown precipitously in recent years.
"There's very few (rural) places to go in this county where you don't find either the remains of a pot farm or an active farm," Congdon said.
He said he has found 25 or 30 farms by himself in the past 15 years, and that such finds are becoming more common. He estimated that almost all of the marijuana farms found in the area were connected to Mexican drug cartels, and that of those sites, 90 percent had armed guards.
Drug operators have made use of public property, including state and national parks, for the farms, as well as unmonitored private property. In this instance, according to Sung, the site was private, but the owner and the growers on the site had no connections.
While Sung would not confirm the involvement of large-scale drug operators, he said authorities are looking into the matter.
"It is possible that there might be a link," he said.
The deputies who opened fire were Devin Fontana, an eight-year veteran; Michael Damigo, an 11-year veteran; and Cregg Dibert, an 11-year veteran, according to Sung.
The last fatal shooting involving a marijuana farm was in 2008, when Dibert had been one of two deputies who fired at three men tending a farm in the Saratoga hills, killing one.
All three deputies were placed on administrative leave after Wednesday's shooting, which is routine practice. The coroner's office has not yet identified the man who was fatally shot.
The raid also involved six sheriffs' deputies from Alameda County, who were not involved in the shooting.
Another fatal shooting at a marijuana farm believed to be connected to the Mexican drug trade occurred in August 2005, when county sheriff's deputies shot and killed a 33-year-old East Palo Alto man near Mount Umunhum after he shot at a state fish and game warden. Authorities subsequently destroyed 22,000 plants estimated to be worth $80 million
Authorities have estimated that 75 percent to 90 percent of new marijuana farms in recent years can be linked to Mexican gangs. While a particular problem for California, long a center for marijuana farming, the effects have reached nationwide: The Drug Enforcement Administration said that in 2008, police across the country destroyed or seized 7.6 million plants.
Congdon, who has worked for seven years as a manager and spent 15 years as a park ranger, said raiding marijuana farms is much more dangerous now.
"I remember years ago, and we'd raid a small pot farm, and it would just be some teenagers," Congdon said.
"To me, it's extremely hazardous," he added. "It's just unfortunate that we have to deal with this."
By Eric Messinger 07/22/2010