Bear hunters and at least three Mexican nationals overseeing a marijuana garden exchanged gunfire after the hunters accidentally stumbled upon the illegal pot fields.
Undercover Gila County Narcotics Task Force agents, who asked not to be identified, said the incident began about noon Friday, Sept. 2 with a 911 call from the hunters.
In interviews with the Queen Creek hunters, agents learned the four were scouting for bear southwest of Payson on the Cross F Ranch.
"One of (the hunters) was in Deer Creek canyon and came across some clothes, and plants that appeared to be marijuana," the GCNTF agent said. "Minutes later, he found himself face-to-face with one of the suspected growers he has identified as a Mexican national."
Not wanting a confrontation, the hunter backtracked, but not before several shots rang out.
"We think there were three to five shots, one hit in front of him and sprayed dirt on him," the GCNTF agent said.
The hunter told agents he quickly scurried out of the canyon to search for his friends.
Once reunited, the four hunters decided on a show of force and fired 20 to 25 shots in the direction the suspect had been seen, the agent said.
Cross F Ranch foreman Jeff Haught suspects that confrontation might have caused the suspects to abandon the gardens.
"Later that night our dogs were barking and I think it was because (the suspects) were hiking out of there," he said. "They might have had cell phones and got to where someone could pick them up."
Haught also said he had an inkling a pot growing operation could have been going on in the rugged, remote area.
Following the hunters' 911 call, a clearing team of about 20 law enforcement officers, including agents from the Department of Public Safety Special Operations Unit, U.S. Forest Service, Gila County Sheriff's Office and the GCNTF raided the canyon the next day and found two marijuana gardens about a half mile apart.
"We also found the usual camp site we've found at the other six gardens we've raided this summer," the task force agent said. "There were bedrolls, food -- rice, beans and (corn) masa -- and firearms."
Weapons found at the site included a Winchester .32 special, a .22 caliber and a pellet gun. Agents found prints and tracks indicating that at least three men were tending the two gardens.
Task force agents and forest service fire crews eradicated 5,689 marijuana plants in the two Deer Creek canyon gardens.
The incident involving the suspects and the bear hunters came on the heels of a warning from Gila County Sheriff John Armer.
"Be cautions and vigilant out there," the sheriff said after the Aug. 15 raid at Calf Pen Canyon. "If you happen to stumble on a grow, remove yourself immediately, avoid any contact with those tending these gardens and report them to the authorities."
Payson-area GCNTF agents echo those warnings, saying the marijuana growers are usually armed and should be considered extremely dangerous.
The seven raids conducted this summer began with citizen tips -- usually a hiker who accidentally stumbled upon the illegal growing operations.
"Those tips are so important to us," the agent said. "But we don't want anyone getting hurt."
Thus far, 13 Mexican nationals have been arrested and charged with conspiracy to manufacture marijuana, which carries a minimum of 10 years to life.
Agents say 110,939 marijuana plants have been eradicated with a street value of more that $200 million.
Anyone finding a suspected marijuana garden should report it to the GCNTF by calling (928) 474-0728.
See related stories:
10 suspects at large, weapons recovered in pot fields (Aug. 26)
Hikers urged to stay aware, be cautious (Aug. 23)
Forest raids net 100,000 pot plants (Aug. 19)
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