Suspects Flee During $2.4 Million Pot Garden Raid

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More than 1,100 marijuana plants with a street value of $2,422,200 were eradicated Wednesday after drug agents raided an illegal growing operation near Horton Creek at the base of the Mogollon Rim.

The raid was the second which law enforcement officers have successfully executed this summer. The first occurred July 11 when officers stormed a growing site near Camp Geronimo northeast of Payson. More than 8,000 plants with a street value of $7 million were eradicated and two Mexican nationals, who were observed tending the gardens, arrested.

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Two suspects fled on foot into the forest near Payson Wednesday after law enforcement officers raided the marijuana field they were tending.

During the most recent raid, two suspects -- also believed to be Mexican nationals -- escaped.

"They fled on foot," a Gila County Narcotics Drug Task Force agent said.

The marijuana garden was very similar to the ones discovered in the earlier raid and in several which took place last summer.

"The plants were spaced out in three plots and were being irrigated, through plastic pipe, with water from a Horton Creek spring," the agent said. "The plants were smaller ones, about 1-1/2 feet (in height)."

Agents also found a plastic children's wading pool that was used to help store water for irrigation.

The abandoned campsite where the growers were living contained bedrolls, a small tent, propane stove and food. Agents did not find any firearms as they did in some other raids including one at Calf Pen Canyon in Aug. 2005.

Agents describe the Horton Creek garden as being located in a rugged, remote canyon accessible only by foot.

Officers from Department of Public Safety, Gila County Sheriff's Office, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Gila County Attorney's Office, DEA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Gila County Narcotics Task Force participated in the early morning raid. A DPS Ranger helicopter was also used.

As has been the case in most all raids over the past two years, a concerned citizen supplied the tip that led officers to the garden.

"Those tips are very important to us," an agent said.

Last summer and fall, citizens' tips led agents to seven illegal growing operations in the Tonto and Coconino National Forests. During raids on them, agents eradicated 110,939 marijuana plants with a street value of more than $200 million.

As important as the tips are, Gila County Sheriff John Armer has issued a warning to hikers who might stumble upon a marijuana garden.

"Be cautious and vigilant out there," he said. "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."

Anyone finding a suspected marijuana garden should report it to the GCNDTF at (928) 474-0728.

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