Update: The DA's Office unveiled new details and names behind its case on Monday. Read the rundown here.
The chief prosecutor of San Bernardino County is criminally charging nearly a dozen alleged “conspirators” for running a massive pot farm underground in a rural alcove of the High Desert.
The Office of District Attorney Jason Anderson announced late Friday it has filed charges against 11 people “in connection to an industrial-sized subterranean illegal marijuana grow in Newberry Springs.”
Anderson will be joined at 2 p.m. Monday by county Code Enforcement Chief Igancio Nunez, Sheriff Shannon Dicus and members of Dicus’ specialized Marijuana Enforcement Team to discuss the context of the case in a press conference at 303 W. Third St., the DA’s office in San Bernardino, according to the office’s Friday advisory.
The extent of the county’s charges is unclear, but a successful prosecution would mark perhaps the biggest score yet in nine months of mass raids and illicit-goods seizures by the sheriff’s Operation Hammer Strike. Dicus led the launch of the operation soon after being appointed sheriff amid calls for a crackdown on illegal cannabis grows by residents of sparsely-populated, unincorporated High Desert communities such as Hinkley and Lucerne Valley.
Newberry Springs, home to less than 3,000 residents roughly 20 miles east of Barstow, is another unincorporated community where some residents say illegal farms have been sprouting up at an exponential rate in recent years.
The newly-announced charges stem from “the discovery of the largest below-ground marijuana grows in our County, spanning over 14,000 square feet,” the DA’s advisory states. It alleges that “a processing warehouse and other properties (were) used in conjunction with the selling, manufacturing and distribution of cannabis” from the underground site in Newberry Springs.
At the press conference Monday, the advisory states, “DA Anderson will be announcing the charges filed against eleven defendants, and the District Attorney’s path to prosecution.”
The sheriff’s Hammer Strike teams as of April 24 had arrested more than 880 people through eight months of raids at hundreds of suspected illegal-cannabis grows, according to a Daily Press analysis of Sheriff’s Department disclosures.
However, the vast majority of these arrests aren’t leading to jail bookings. They’ve instead produced citations and same-day releases as required by California’s Proposition 64, which in 2016 made all illegal cannabis farming a misdemeanor no matter the scale, contrary to most legalized states that have maintained a felony status for grows that exceed around half-a-dozen plants.
Some residents and public officials say this lenience is the reason illegal pot farms have been surging in the growth-rich High Desert. In an interview earlier this month, Sheriff Shannon Dicus said Mexican and Chinese cartels have specifically been fueling the trend.
The department has identified 29 Hammer Strike arrestees as residents of Newberry Springs. Many more hail from places far beyond the county: at least 85 arrestees residing in Mexico; 11 residing in China; and dozens from far-off states including New York, Texas and Massachusetts.
Charlie McGee covers California’s High Desert for the Daily Press, focusing on the city of Barstow and its surrounding communities. He is also a Report for America corps member with The GroundTruth Project, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the U.S. and around the world. McGee may be reached at 760-955-5341 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bycharliemcgee.
This article originally appeared on Victorville Daily Press: San Bernardino County DA charges ‘conspirators’ for underground pot farm