by Rosemary Edmiston & Tiffany Lee-Youngren
AN ANONYMOUS TELEPHONE TIP LED drug
enforcement agents to raid property near Berry Summit, uncovering the largest
indoor marijuana-growing operation in state history. But there were other
signs something was amiss on the expansive parcel in the Three Creeks drainage
about six miles north of state Highway 299.
A new home was made to look like children lived there, yet the outdoor environment was antiseptic, sterile. A fuel company delivered large amounts of diesel to the property, yet the drivers were not allowed beyond a gate leading to several structures. The humming of a 125-kilowatt generator described by one Drug Enforcement Administration agent as the largest he'd ever seen was relentless.
On June 23 three people were arrested in connection with the clandestine operation, but at least one attorney says their part was minor compared to the landowners.
"I compare it to going into a sweat shop and arresting the workers instead of the people exploiting them," said San Francisco lawyer Randolph Daar, who represents suspect Shaun Lee Turner of England.
Authorities are looking for the property owners, Dennis Franklin Hunter, 25, and Roy "Brian" Mercer, 33. No-bail federal arrest warrants charging suspicion to manufacture and conspiracy to manufacture more than 10,000 marijuana plants have been issued for both men. Authorities consider them "main players" in the operation, said sheriff's Sgt. Steve Knight.
Acting on the phone tip and with knowledge that a 6,000-plant outdoor garden was discovered on U.S. Forest Service land in the same area the previous year, several Humboldt County sheriff's deputies and two federal drug agents, all working undercover, drove to the Three Creeks area on June 23 in an effort to obtain enough information for a search warrant.
"They agreed that they would use the ruse that they were looking for a place to cut firewood if they were encountered by anybody," according to court documents.
The agents drove as far as they could along Old Three Creeks Road and Cedar End Road until they reached a locked gate. They walked past the gate which they said had no trespass warning signs on it and down a road, finding a travel trailer and mobile home. One agent heard the diesel generator running, documents said. They would later find marijuana growing in both structures.
The agents were walking out of the area toward the gate when they were confronted by a man, who ordered them off his property. Moments later the same man, who authorities said identified himself as Dennis Hunter, confronted the agents. He was accompanied by several dogs and several men, two of whom were in a truck. Hunter "became confrontational" and asked to see the agents' wood cutting permit.
When they could not produce it, "Hunter became more confrontational and the officers felt that they were in danger. ... Fearing for their own safety at this point, they identified themselves verbally as law enforcement officers and showed their badges," the documents said.
The man said to be Hunter ran into the woods and the truck occupants began rolling up their windows and started the car, apparently to flee, documents said. The officers were able to pull both men from the vehicle, but the driver, identified as a worker named "Brian," freed himself and also fled into the woods.
Minutes later another car approached the gate and the agents arrested the driver, Lori Anne Handy, 44, of Arcata, after they found a paper bag containing freshly clipped marijuana in the trunk.
At the gate Turner, 29, and Jeromy Paul Shull, 23, of Eureka were taken into custody.
A deputy and two agents searched most of the buildings on the property in an attempt to locate the men who fled. What they found all but guaranteed they would be granted a search warrant, which they were later that day.
Knight said the agents were within their rights to enter the property, having a strong suspicion a felony crime had occurred, and because the suspects fled onto the private land. The only structure not entered was a private residence, which was off limits without a search warrant, Knight said.
Attorney Daar, however, was not convinced the law enforcement officers' actions were legal. He was awaiting government reports "to justify their warrantless trespass on the property." The attorney said he may contest the raid in court.
Handy, Turner and Shull were indicted by a federal grand jury in San Francisco on July 8 for manufacturing a controlled substance and aiding and abetting in the manufacture of a controlled substance, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Hinds. The case is in the federal arena because of the number of plants seized, about 12,400. If convicted the three suspects face 10 years to life in prison and fines up to $4 million.
The suspects may also be charged with environmental violations after authorities found diesel fuel and crankcase oil had leaked into Three Creeks from the generator.
State Fish and Game Warden Joaquin Mariante said crankcase oil was allowed to drain onto the ground, contaminating a spring and the creek. Diesel was leaking from the generator, which was located about a foot from the waterway.
Court records show that Dennis Hunter owes fuel supplier Renner Petroleum $5,000.
Handy and Shulls' attorneys did not return telephone calls, but Turner's lawyer indicated that the punishment his client may face is harsh.
"It's a terrible situation," Daar said. "He's in jail the whole time and he's looking at a minimum of 10 years. ... The law doesn't distinguish between workers and proprietors."
Both Handy and Shull posted $100,000 bonds using family property as collateral. Turner's family, Daar said, does not have the financial means to post bond. And the attorney expects it will be about a year before a trial gets underway.
But, according to Hinds, bail has been denied for Turner because he is considered a flight risk.
It's unclear what strategy authorities will use to connect the three indicted suspects to the massive operation, since they were arrested away from any structures. Shull, however, reportedly told agents that all the marijuana plants belonged to Hunter, and that Hunter paid trimmers $15 an hour to manicure buds for sale. Shull also allegedly said that Hunter had a ledger documenting the workers' hours, and that Mercer housed employees and is "involved with Hunter in the growing of marijuana," documents stated.
Hundreds of items were confiscated, including photos which suggest the property owners and the three people arrested were either friends or acquaintances. Items seized include a computer, video camera and tape, guns, a Caterpillar grader, a backhoe, hundreds of lights and generators.
Dennis and Shireen Hunter (formerly Shireen Gebhardt), who is believed to be the suspect's wife, purchased their Three Creeks property in March 1997, county records show. At the same time, two adjoining parcels were bought by an F.G. Digby, a name authorities say is probably fictitious. Ten months later Mercer bought land adjacent to the Hunters.
Digby's property is listed as being "in care of" Shireen Hunter, and all three landowners share a common post office box in Arcata.
Hunter, a licensed contractor who owns a business called North State Painting, built a two-story home and several out buildings after buying the property, although the county Building Department has no record of any permits obtained for the parcels since 1972.
The home, described by the sheriff informant as a "mansion," has a green metal roof and natural wood siding. Another "home" of approximately 4,000 square feet had no interior improvements and was obviously constructed specifically for growing marijuana, authorities said.
Pot was also found growing in other structures, including a mobile home, travel trailer and shed. No plants were found in Hunter's private residence.
Since the raid, all the improvements on the property have been added to the county's tax rolls, said Assessor Ray Jerland. The amount of back taxes owed has yet to be determined, but Jerland said the county won't ever see the kind of money a mansion might generate.
"It's a fairly substantial house. It's a fairly nice inside. It's not a mansion," he said.
While the number of plants confiscated by authorities at Three Creeks was unusual, the operation itself was not.
It's not uncommon, Sgt. Knight said, to find structures that look like homes but are gutted to house marijuana farms. Camouflaged plywood buildings have also been discovered with pot growing inside, although these type of operations are usually found in Southern Humboldt.
The Three Creeks bust broke the county record for number of indoor plants discovered by authorities 8,000 in March 1997 outside Ettersburg in Southern Humboldt.
Other recent large indoor put busts include 1,600 plants found in January 1997 in Dinsmore; 1,180 plants found in June 1997 in a Ferndale green house; 2,400 plants found in December in two related busts in Dyerville and Phillipsville; 2,470 plants found in January in Seely Creek outside Briceland; 1,090 plants found in March in two related busts in Briceland and Crooked Prairie and 1,500 plants found in May in Salmon Creek. (All of these locations are in the southern end of the county.)
The June 23 Three Creeks raid wasn't the first time Dennis Hunter and Mercer had run into trouble.
Some five years earlier both men were arrested in Mendocino County after sheriff's deputies found them growing marijuana outdoors and in a green house in Potter Valley, said Sgt. Ron Caudillo. They were given probation, although Hunter was able to have his sentence shortened and is off probation, authorities said.
In addition to Dennis Hunter, drug enforcement agents are also looking for Shireen Hunter. She is sought for questioning, Knight said.
After paperwork with the name Clint Hunter was found on the property, authorities questioned the Eureka resident, who is Dennis Hunter's brother. The sheriff's sergeant would not elaborate on that interview, saying only that no arrest warrant had been issued for Clint Hunter "at this time."
In San Francisco, the case against Turner, Shull and Handy will be back in U.S. District Court Aug. 19 for a routine status hearing.
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