Record pot crop seized in county: 25,741 plants, value of $22 million

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It took 25 law enforcement officers and National Guardsmen three days to completely eradicate the 25,741 marijuana plants that were located last week at 10 different sites along Green Valley Road on the western edge of Switzerland County – and once all of the plants were cut down and disposed of, estimates place a value at more than $22 million.

That makes the find a record for a single outdoor growing operation in state history.

Noel Kinney, Indiana State Police Officer and marijuana eradication coordinator for the district, said that everything began on August 22nd when Indiana Department of Conservation officers found 864 marijuana plants growing on Green Valley Road.

That find was a result of a tip that officers received.

“When the initial 864 plants were found and eradicated by the Department of Conservation. They called me at that point and knew that we had the aircraft and the resources to go in a check the area a little more thoroughly. That’s when we discovered those other plants.”

The Indiana State Police is involved in a task force that also includes the Indiana National Guard and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.

Noel Kinney said that a Blackhawk helicopter from the Indiana National Guard flew over the area carrying four spotters; and that’s when the different plots began to be discovered.

The first day of the investigation began last Thursday, when the spotters began to see plots of marijuana around the Green Valley area at about 12:30 p.m. Officials say that marijuana plants are easy to spot from the area, because their emerald green color is really bright in the dense woods or in fields.

Noel Kinney said that the plants were located on the property of four different landowners – none of which the investigators believe had anything to do with the plants or had any knowledge of the plants being there. The plants were in 10 different locations, but investigators believe that evidence suggests that either one person or an organization is responsible for the entire operation.

Noel Kinney said that after the initial find on Thursday, law enforcement officials and National Guardsmen went back in on both Friday and Saturday to continue to eradicate the marijuana plants.

“The terrain is so rugged out in there, and it’s so hilly,” Noel Kinney said. “I think the nearest plot from any roadway was seven-tenths of a mile; so it was extremely difficult for our ground people to get in there and cut the plants.”

Because of that, National Guardsmen and other officials were repelled from helicopters down into the sites, providing easier access to the area.

After the plants were cut down, the majority of the marijuana was then bundled securely and airlifted out of the plots. From there, the plants were gathered and burnt to destroy them.

Noel Kinney said that officers from the state police’s Emergency Reaction Team remained at the scene for the three days, waiting in case the growers returned to check on their crop. Officers also contacted the property owners to tell them not to wander around their property over the weekend because officers may not be sure who they were.

Over the three days, Noel Kinney said that 24,877 plants were taken from the nine plots that law enforcement officers worked at over the three day period – and doesn’t include the 864 plants that DNR officers found initially - making a total of 25,741 plants.

Noel Kinney said that at the plots the plants were at different stages of growth, noting that if all of the plants were growing and became ready for harvest at the same time, it would be nearly impossible for those responsible to get the entire harvest completed.

“It was going to be very difficult for whatever individual or organization who was growing these to get all of that out,” Noel Kinney said. “They were at different stages.”

Noel Kinney said that each mature plant, on average, produces one pound of finished product. To determine the street value of what was eradicated here, the officers then look at the current street value as they know it from informants.

“There’s no way to say that each of those plants would have produced a pound, but on average, that’s what a marijuana plant will produce,” Noel Kinney said. “So if it’s $1,500 per pound or whatever, you just do the math. It’s a lot.”

Now, officers continue to collect evidence in the case, and have also spoken with other agencies who have had similar growing operations. The investigation is still ongoing, and anyone who may have any information about this or other marijuana growing operations should contact him at the Versailles State Police post, (812) 689-5000.

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Being a resident of Switzerland County, Noel Kinney said that it was bittersweet to find such a large growing operation in the county in which he and his family live.

“It wasn’t something that you want to find here. Sure, it’s nice to find it and know that all of that marijuana is not going to be out on the streets, but it’s also a little condemning to know that this is the community that you live in. But I’m just glad that all of that isn’t going to make it to the streets now.”

Noel Kinney said that his program basically runs from May through October; but this is the busiest time of the year because the plants are mature and easier to see. He also said that there is more activity in those areas, because growers are getting ready to harvest at this point of the year.

So how does someone attempt to cultivate more than 25,000 marijuana plants that far off of the roadway and not get caught?

“This is all speculation, but most likely you’re looking at some sort of major drug trafficking organization that’s going to have 15-20 people who are going to work several hours a day,” Noel Kinney said. “Somehow, where they are parking or what they are doing or how they made their way back into this we’re not 100-percent sure of. It’s a large operation. There’s no way a couple of people are going to be able to harvest that much marijuana. For one or two people, it would take months.”

In addition to the Indiana State Police and the DNR and National Guard, Noel Kinney said that the Switzerland County Sheriff’s Department was at the scene and provided some help; and the Vevay Police Department also provided some manpower.

“Believe me, everyone was used,” Noel Kinney said. “We could have used half an army to get that stuff out of there.”