Yakima Valley pot growers hide grass under grapevines
Since July 8, cops have pulled up 165,670 pot plants in the Yakima Valley, mostly from 13 vineyard busts. Growers are planting in vineyards because they provide camouflage, irrigation water and easier access.
Seattle Times staff reporter
SUNNYSIDE, Yakima County —
It's harvest time here, where you can drive for miles and see endless neat rows of grapevines.
The grapes won't be ripe until after Labor Day. But the pot plants have been budding.
This is the latest innovation by the pot growers: Why trek all the way into isolated forests to hide the plants, when such handy camouflage is available in the Yakima Valley?
The irrigation systems are there; there are dirt access roads for a tractor; a farm-supply store usually is nearby.
On this scorching summer day, 4,750 marijuana plants will be pulled up, roots and all, from a Concord grape vineyard along yet another scenic country road.
Vineyard busts have exploded in the past few weeks. Since July 8, cops have pulled up 165,670 pot plants, most of them from 13 vineyard busts. Ten thousand were pulled from a cornfield, another 10,000 from an apple orchard and 134 from an asparagus field.
With the temperature heading to 99 degrees, the sweat is drenching the face of the man in charge of going after the pot harvest here.
He is State Patrol Sgt. Rick Beghtol, head of the valley's Law Enforcement Against Drugs.
The passenger door open, Beghtol is halfway out of a dark-blue Ford Expedition XLT, standing on the floor to better see and direct the bust of a 90-acre vineyard just down a small slope.
In the vineyard, a variety of law-enforcement agencies are represented: 16 members of a National Guard drug task force who will pull the plants, four DEA agents, and narcotics detectives from nearby cities, as well as Yakima County.
A little earlier, from his vantage point, Beghtol saw a guy who had been on a blue tractor tending the plants. When he spotted the agents, he jumped into a grassy area.
"He was on his belly, trying to get away. I could see the grass moving," Beghtol says.
The guy was caught and arrested, joining some 21 others currently in jail from recent vineyard busts.
Same old story
On his radio, Beghtol hears what an agent is saying after questioning the guy.
"It's the same old story as everyone else had the last three weeks," the agent says.
What he means is that the guys tending the fields, who invariably identify themselves as Mexican nationals, say they just came up from San Diego, that they were just tending the grapes, and don't know anything about anything.
The Mexican connection is shown in the probable-cause reports, which include such details as "All 3 defendants are illegal aliens ... and do not possess an alien firearms license."
Beghtol is 51, and this is his 18th year working narcotics in the valley.
The sweat is showing on his face because he's not exactly dressed summer casual, what with his camouflage outfit; various straps holdings this and that, including an HK .40-caliber pistol; and mostly because he's wearing a Kevlar vest in case bullets start flying.
Agents have found in the vineyards an AK-47, an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, an SKS Chinese assault rifle, and, Beghtol says, "a lot of handguns."
No shots have been fired in any of the busts. Instead, the suspects simply start running, trying to get lost in the fields.
They have some luck. Beghtol figures some 20 have managed to get away.
The heat was getting to Beghtol so much that he finally took out the heavy trauma plate in the vest.
When he returns home that evening, his clothes stinking of that unique marijuana smell, Beghtol first will head to the downstairs laundry room to wash his work clothes and change into shorts.
"It's my wife," he says. "She doesn't like the smell."
An early start
The bust began at 8:30 in the morning. An hour later, task-force members decided that the one guy they arrested was it. The agents decided the vineyard was secure.
In it, they have found an abandoned, beat-up Daihatsu Charade. The trunk holds containers of herbicide and hydraulic fluid, garbage and a little notebook with numeric notations.
Sleeping bags, a coffee Thermos and empty Coors cans also are lying around.
In come the young and fit members of the National Guard, preparing to pull up the pot plants. Beghtol shows them a pile of duct tape and, if needed, loppers.
The duct tape will be used to bundle the marijuana in sets of 25 plants. A Drug Enforcement Administration agent will videotape each bundle being thrown into a truck.
The plants all need to have root balls, Beghtol says, to prove charges of manufacturing marijuana.
Eventually they will be trucked to the Army's Yakima Firing Center, drenched with diesel fuel and torched.
On this day, Sgt. Karl Karlsson, 37, of Spokane, is leading a group of four National Guard members.
In the scorching heat, Karlsson and his group methodically start down one row of grapevines.
At first they find only a few pot plants, then some rows with bunches of them, but still in random patterns.
Plants tended to be in the center of the vineyard in previous busts. The pot growers have learned.
People such as Karlsson and Beghtol tend to share views on marijuana. Says Karlsson: "There will be a supply as long as people want it."
He says he never was into that scene in his teens, "but I saw plenty of classmates."
Beghtol knows the relationship between pot and pop culture in America.
"When I was a kid," Beghtol says, "the movies were Cheech and Chong in 'Up in Smoke,' and 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High.' I did see them and thought they were funny."
Each plant is valued at $1,000, based upon its street value when mature and producing about three-quarters of a pound of bud.
According to Danny Danko, who holds the title of Senior Cultivation Editor at High Times magazine, a pound of bud such as grown in the Yakima Valley would have a street value of $2,000 to $4,000. So, in this instance, he says, the cops appear to have lowballed the value of the plants.
The Yakima pot, Beghtol says, is sold within the state and travels to other parts of the country.
In their investigations, he says, agents find motel, gas and food bills that those arrested didn't bother to throw out of their cars. One bill was from Chicago, another from Indiana.
For this particular bust, Beghtol says, the tip came from a couple of anonymous guys who said they had run out of gas and were walking to a house on the other side of the vineyard to ask for help when they stumbled on the marijuana plants, and then were chased out by two armed men.
Beghtol is dubious about how the men ended up in the vineyard. Why would they walk across a vineyard when they could have used one of the roads to a much-nearer home?
In a previous bust, the tipsters were apparently more honest.
"We got a call one night about a marijuana grow on Highway 97," Beghtol says. "The guy says, 'A buddy of mine climbed onto the property and stole some plants. I was going to do the same, but then I saw these guys walking around with rifles. I figured I'd turn them in; they're armed.' "
Beghtol says it isn't easy tracing who actually knew what about the pot growing in a vineyard. One property in a bust, he says, was leased and then subleased.
In today's bust, he says, the landowner didn't know anything about the pot; there was a manager for the property.
The manager was around at the vineyard as the bust began, then disappeared.
"We can't find him," Beghtol says. "Now he won't answer his phone."
Pot growers like to plant among Concord grapes, which are used for juice and jellies.
"Concord grapes have much more of a 'shoulder' on the vine," says Randy Tucker, a vineyard owner who also owns Tucker Cellars in Sunnyside. "They have a lot more cover, whereas wine grapes have hardly any growth underneath at all."
Tucker also is a real-estate agent. Once last year and once this year, he says, he was approached by individuals — who spoke only Spanish — wanting to pay all cash for Concord grape farms, which cost less than one-third the price of wine-grape farms.
Tucker says the potential buyers never got back to him.
The Concord grapes in today's bust, like those in other busted fields, will not be purchased by the area's big processors.
It's not that the grapes would have been contaminated by the marijuana plants, says Terry Bliesner, who does sales and marketing for family-owned Valley Processing in Sunnyside. It's more the publicity about juice and jelly from a marijuana field.
"We don't want to be associated with those vineyards," Bliesner says.
By 2 in the afternoon, the pot plants have been gathered and trucked off. But now another tip has come in about another vineyard.
This summer, Beghtol's going to be doing his laundry plenty when he gets home.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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