The federal government took the first step last Thursday toward seizing the nearly 2,000 acres near Whitethorn that were the main target of last week’s “Operation Southern Sweep.” The raids brought 450 agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, the IRS, the U.S. Postal Service and others, who joined local law enforcement.
According to documents recorded Thursday, June 26, in the Humboldt County Recorder’s office, U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello’s office filed a complaint for forfeiture in U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, on three properties comprising multiple parcels in southern Humboldt and northern Mendocino counties. The parcels all belong to the Lost Paradise Land Corp.
The complaint alleges the three properties “facilitated violation” of the federal code that prohibits commercial marijuana cultivation and are therefore subject to forfeiture. The complaint notes, however, that the properties have not been seized but that notices of the complaint for forfeiture have been served to the properties and to the owners of record of the properties.
The complaint identifies the three properties thus:
The first: four Mendocino parcels totaling 960 acres, which the complaint calls the “Juan CC property,” owned by Robert Juan.
The second: 10 Mendocino parcels and two Humboldt parcels totaling about 945 acres, owned by Lost Paradise Land Corp.
The third: Two Mendocino parcels of unspecified acreage owned by Graeson Prescott and Paul Sayers.
The complaint says that on June 24, federal agents, acting on warrants, searched these properties and “found evidence of marijuana cultivation operations.” It describes what was found:
On the Juan CC property: Over “25 areas that had been cleared and leveled for the purpose to facilitate the cultivation of marijuana,” over 24 pot gardens in open air and greenhouses, and 3,929 plants “in various stages of development.” As well, agents found “manure and fertilizer, discarded piles of top soil and fertilizer, water storage and irrigation systems, generators and plastic planter boxes....”
On the second property, they found 36 cleared and leveled areas, 46 pot gardens and 7, 372 plants, plus manure, etc.
On the third property: one cleared and leveled area, and 164 plants in a greenhouse.
A news release issued June 25, the day after the sweep began, by the FBI and the California Department of Justice, did not list this detailed information, but merely said it had served 29 warrants (27 federal and two state) and was “searching almost 2,000 acres in southern Humboldt County and northern Mendocino County belonging to the targets of the investigation.” It said the investigation had begun in early 2006 and targeted “a large commercial marijuana cultivation and distribution organization.”
During the sweep, it said, agents searched “grow houses and residences in Shelter Cove, Whitethorn, Redway, Ettersburg, Garberville, Miranda, Phillipsville, Arcata, and McKinleyville.” Agents found 10,000 marijuana plants, “estimated to be worth between $25 [million] and $60 million on the street,” and “seized 30 firearms, including fully automatic weapons, one vehicle, and over $160 thousand in cash.”
“This is not a medical marijuana operation or a group of people growing for personal use,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Charlene B. Thornton in the news release. “It’s a large-scale, for-profit, commercial business. The targets of our investigation are reaping huge profits while contributing to the crime and violence oppressing communities across the state.”
The sweep sparked massive traffic on local blogs and commentary on local radio stations, with many decrying the feds’ heavy handed tactics, not to mention the use of tax dollars for salaries, travel and lodging. Some of the people raided called stations to say the feds’ bust was a bust for the feds — that is, they thought they were going after a big fish, but they got a little fish.
Residents had reported the Lost Paradise Land Corp. that was targeted is called Buddhaville after its owner, “Buddha” or “Mr. B” — Robert Juan. Reportedly, Juan’s house in Miranda also was raided. (The complaint was served in three locations: a post office box in Whitethorn, an address in Whitethorn and the corporation’s address in Shelter Cove.)
County and state records reveal that the president of Lost Paradise Land Corp. is Robert Juan, 36; Graeson Prescott, 37, of Eureka, is the treasurer, and Brendon Clarke, 46, Loleta, is the secretary. (Clarke is not mentioned in the complaint.) The corporation bought the properties in 2004 from Eddie and Diana Mendes of Fortuna, who bought them from Hawthorne Timber Co. in 2003. (Hawthorne bought them from North American Timber, which bought them from Georgia-Pacific). Sayers, 37, of Whitethorn — named in the complaint as co-owner along with Prescott of one of the properties targeted — is not listed as a corporation officer.
Reached by phone at home Saturday, Diana Mendes at first was reluctant to reveal her identity. But then she said she had followed the sweep in the newspaper and “was freaked out.” She said she and her husband were not targeted in the investigation and that they have no involvement with Lost Paradise other than that they are still receiving payment for the properties on two notes.
Records show in 2004 Lost Paradise put down roughly $703,000 for the properties and took out two loans in the amount of $1.4 million and $300,000 — both from the Mendes — based on the document transfer tax.
Although many residents are questioning the cost-benefit of the massive raids, Humboldt County Sheriff’s Lt. George Cavinta said Tuesday the agents were just collecting documents that when analyzed could reveal a large, sophisticated operation.
Many questions remain. For instance, what is the connection between the other properties raided, like those in northern Humboldt? What property in McKinleyville was searched? A sheriff’s spokesperson said it didn’t assist with that search because all six available officers were sent to help secure the 2,000 acres in Southern Humboldt. Also, how is the house on Virginia Way in Arcata connected?
“I have no idea,” said Miu Ling Elkins, who owns the Arcata house with her husband, Robert. The Elkins were reached by phone in Novato this weekend. Miu Ling said the Arcata house tenant, whose identity has not been reported, is “neat and clean; she pays her rent on time.”
The Elkins bought 12 houses in Arcata in 1992 and 1993 to rent to students for a long-term investment. “They were so cheap,” Miu Ling said. All 12 properties are managed by Humboldt Property Management Group. There have been a few complaints or suspicions of a rental being used as a grow house in the past, but the Elkins said they move quickly to evict such tenants.
“It really wrecks a house,” said her husband, Robert.
The feds wrapped up their big sweep by the end of last week. Now, said Lt. Cavinta, they will sift through the evidence, which could take months or even a year.
Meanwhile, down in SoHum where most of the agents descended last week, many residents are still simmering over the raid. It came right as the big fires started down there — in fact, some callers to KMUD radio last week were saying that while they were out fighting fires, the feds were searching their homes. And why hadn’t the feds considered their animals — who would feed them — before they began their searches?
But others seemed underwhelmed by the whole deal. Said one resident who lives on Thomas Road in Miranda where a house was raided, “It wasn’t like when CAMP comes in here. This sounds like a phony p.r. thing. When CAMP does it, they bring in helicopters and they have dump trucks hauling out generators. With 400 agents, I should see a hundred guys being walked into jail. So what did they do? If they wanted to stop dope, they could trip on it here. Where is it? They haven’t found enough stuff to pay the motel bills.”
The feds response? The investigation continues.
Judy Hodgson contributed to this report.