State, county and federal law enforcement officers seized a network of marijuana crop fields containing an estimated 10,000 plants Monday in one of the largest growing operations ever found in Arizona.
Officers from the Gila County Task Force, Arizona Department of Public Safety, U.S. Forest Service and Gila County Sheriff's Office raided the marijuana fields located in Calf Pen Canyon, located 4 miles north of Strawberry in the Coconino National Forest.
Some suspects escape
During the raid, four male Mexican nationals suspected of cultivating the crops were apprehended. Other suspects fled into the forest and are still at large. Canine units were used in the raid and continue to assist in the ongoing search for suspects.
Commander Steve Craig of the Gila County Narcotics Task Force said that while this is a large bust, it is not the largest in U.S. history as reported by some media outlets. There have been larger marijuana fields discovered on the East Coast and in the South, Craig said.
Officers from the combined agencies are in the canyon harvesting the marijuana crops. The plants are being hauled out of the canyon by a DPS ranger helicopter with a tethered cargo net. After being flown out of the canyon, the crops are lowered to awaiting forest service personnel who unload the cargo nets and throw the marijuana into a bonfire.
Officials estimate that the crops were planted in late spring -- possibly late April or early May. Some plants have grown to 6 feet tall.
Harvesting and burning operations are expected to continue until late Friday.
Reports out of the canyon indicate that the growing operation is not a single unit like a cornfield, but rather patches of smaller marijuana fields.
Sheriff canine injures fleeing suspect
One of the captured suspects was seriously injured when he fled from officers in an attempt to escape and was overtaken by a sheriff's dog.
"We were dispatched out to Cinch Hook snow play area to treat a victim who received multiple dog bites," said Stacy Parkerson, EMT and public information officer for the Pine-Strawberry Fire Department. "When we first arrived it was very hush-hush. Once we were on scene (task force officers) told us it was one of the men fleeing during the drug bust. The dog got him pretty good. He had multiple bites on his legs and arms. The bites caused loss of blood and deep muscle tissue damage. They will need to call a special surgeon to handle his injuries because the bites go in deep and pulled the muscle from the bone. It looked very scary. After seeing that, I would never want to face one of those dogs. I mean, we've been called to treat dog bites around here from neighborhood dogs, but if we hadn't know his injuries were caused by a canine, we never would have recognized it."
The injured suspect, a 25-year-old Mexican national, was brought to awaiting Pine-Strawberry medical personnel by helicopter.
"He had been running for several hours," Parkerson said. "He was in an area where it was too hard to get to him, so they dropped a DPS paramedic down to him and hooked him up to a harness and long-hauled him out. They brought him to us at Cinch Hook."
After treating the wound and starting an IV, the suspect was transported by ambulance to Payson Regional Medical Center.
A press conference detailing the eradication effort is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Thursday at the U.S. Attorney's offices in Phoenix. During the press conference, combined-agency representatives will discuss updated details on federal charges filed against individuals arrested in connection with Monday's raid. Officials say they will also reveal information about other marijuana fields recently discovered in the Tonto National Forest.
Watch for complete details and photos in the printed edition of the Payson Roundup.