More than 19,000 marijuana plants were seized Friday, 15 miles south of Young in a remote canyon. Officials estimated the final count of plants seized would amount to 4,800 pounds with a street value of between $23 and $46 million.
Sheriff John Armer said this may be the largest grove discovered in several years.
Operation PB Springs Garden began about two weeks ago when a Game and Fish Department warden stumbled upon what he suspected was marijuana.
Dan Smith, law enforcement officer with the Forest Service later confirmed that there was about an acre of marijuana close to harvest.
U.S. Forest Service officer, Bob Hernandez was called in from California to assume the job of Incident Commander.
Close to 100 officers from the Gila County Narcotics Task Force, the Gila County Sheriff's Office, the Forest Service, U.S. Customs, Arizona National Guard, U.S. Attorney's Office, Arizona Game and Fish and the Department of Public Safety participated in various phases of the operation.
Special Operations forces had been staked out on bluffs overlooking the garden and conducting surveillance of Highway 288.
Tom Lister, patrol captain of the Tonto National Forest, was involved in the surveillance.
"We have seen two Hispanic males watering the plants," Lister said. "We saw them together two times and saw one of the individuals four times."
Officials said they believe the men began cultivating the marijuana in April. Lister said they had not seen the individuals for at least a day before the seizure.
"We think they got spooked by one of our helicopters," Lister said. "It's a double-edged sword because the air support is important for officer safety, but it may have tipped them off."
Smith said since it is bear hunting season, there are several hunters in the area, adding to the danger to public safety.
The first phase of the operation occurred early Friday morning when tactical officers swept through the area, hoping to find the growers. By about 10 a.m., they had not found anyone, but found the evidence that the men were living there.
"We found a shaving kit, detergent and some clothes that were being washed in the creek," Lister said.
While tactical forces searched the immediate area of the garden, several officers set up a wide perimeter in case the suspects tried to flee.
When the area was secure, officers entered the evidence-collecting phase.
"They process it just like any crime scene," Smith said.
Task force and GCSO officers worked meticulously, picking each plant, saving a portion for evidence.
The majority of plants were picked up and carried out in bundles by a DPS helicopter, and dropped in a large field at the command post at Cagle cabin.
Officers at the command post took the plants out of the netting used to bundle them and threw them into a pile. The quantity of plants exceeded preliminary estimates of between 5,000 and 10,000.
"I have never seen anything this sizable in this state," Smith said.
GCSO Lt. Adam Shepherd also was surprised by the amount of plants recovered.
"I used to work narcotics and the biggest bust I ever made was 600 plants," Shepherd said. "Nothing on this scale."
According to Shepherd, marijuana grown in this area in an outdoor environment is of a high quality and often fetches a premium price on the drug market.
DPS Drug Enforcement Commander Bob Halliday said the operation was very sophisticated.
"They used the stream that was in the canyon to water the plants," Halliday said. "They used PVC pipe for irrigation."
Armer, who had returned to Globe earlier in the afternoon, was stunned by the final count Shepherd told him.
"Oh my! Wow!" Armer said.
The plants not used for evidence were piled onto a stack of wood. Forest Service crews poured solvent on the plants and began the burn.
"All of it has to be completely burned," Shepherd said. "Officers and Forest Service crews will be here all night tending the fire and making sure it is all burned."
The GCSO, the Task Force, and supporting agencies will continue the investigation. Preliminary estimates are that Operation PB Springs Garden may be one of the largest marijuana seizures in Gila County history, officials said, if not Arizona history.