LEONA VALLEY — Residents across the Antelope Valley raised concerns about illegal marijuana grow operations in a discussion hosted Saturday by Los Angeles County Fifth District Supervisor Kathryn Barger.
The town hall-style meeting, held at the Westside Christian Fellowship in Leona Valley, brought together local government officials, law enforcement and a panel of experts answering questions and addressing concerns for several hours.
“It’s not just about Leona Valley. This problem is out of control, and we’re here to say enough is enough,” Barger said. “I want the illegal producers to know that you are not wanted here.”
The campaign against illegal grow operations engages not only the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, but also federal authorities, including the FBI, civil penalties through the County Board, and Southern California Edison and Cal Water, to combat the theft of electricity and water to support cultivation.
“(We’re) going to look at all the tools we can put in our box to combat this problem,” Barger said.
One tool added is a nuisance abatement order, to be considered by Council on Tuesday, which includes fines of $30,000 a day on properties cited for illegal cultivation. It is expected that these administrative means will provide faster relief and deter activity.
“We have to hit them where it hurts,” Barger said.
Los Angeles County will also look into real estate agents who profit from selling properties at inflated prices to those who intend to grow marijuana illegally, she said.
Representative Mike Garcia, who has lobbied for federal resources to tackle the problem, noted that while the problem is far from eradicated, enforcement efforts have had an impact by increasing the risk to growers. .
“We’ve turned things around on that,” he said.
While large-scale illegal outdoor grow operations are still a problem, ongoing law enforcement activities – including a June 2021 multi-agency bankruptcy – have pushed a number of operations into the lurch. interior, where houses are converted into more secretive cultivation operations.
There is a commitment at all levels of government, from local to federal, to tackle the problem and provide resources to law enforcement. This also includes seeking federal charges, if any, and obtaining cooperation from federal law enforcement.
The FBI is looking for a federal connection in local matters in order to bring federal charges, said assistant special agent in charge of the Los Angeles division, Adrian Franco.
These may include the use of fraudulent loan documents to purchase the property in use, mortgage fraud, the use of illegal proceeds to purchase property, or organized crime or gangs.
“You have a whole-of-government approach,” Garcia said.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is actively working on the issue, but is hampered by understaffing, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said.
The Board of Supervisors in October approved $4.9 million to combat illegal cultivation operations in the Antelope Valley.
“We’re going to bend over backwards to find every possible way to hold people accountable,” he said.
A takeaway from the discussion was the need for patience. Officials stressed that every effort was being made – at multiple levels of government – to provide the tools and resources needed to address the issue, but the process was slow and time-consuming.
“It will take longer than we like, but it will happen,” said MP Tom Lackey.
Officials stressed the important role residents can play in reporting suspicious activity.
“If you don’t give us your input and ideas, it won’t work,” said Lancaster station captain John Lecrivian.
Among the signs to watch and report for interior operations in particular are extensive construction work at odd hours, especially in outbuildings; long periods of no one home followed by large numbers of people for a short time; air conditioning operating in cold weather; an unusually high number of solar panels; solid fences and security cameras; exterior property falling into disrepair; modifications to electrical panels; and ventilation in unusual places, such as ducts running through a bedroom window, Deputy Joel Bronson said.
Tipping is taken seriously, officials said, although progress is not easily seen.
Once a tip is received and determined to be legitimate, deputies conduct surveillance on the site to gather enough evidence of criminal activity to obtain a search warrant. This can take days or more, including planning for the safe execution of the warrant, Commander Holly Francisco said.
Once there, evidence is gathered, arrests can be made, and a case is prepared for the district attorney for prosecution.
The sheriff’s department served nearly 400 warrants last year in Antelope Valley, Francisco said.
“The bad guys know we’re coming. We will continue to serve (warrants),” she said.
Advice regarding illegal electricity use and dangers may also be reported to Southern California Edison or 911 if in immediate danger.
Residents should report observed water thefts, such as water tankers filling up at standpipes, to water suppliers.
The Lancaster station has a team of deputies working full-time on water theft issues, Lecrivian said.
They were able to confiscate a number of vehicles, but many were returned. MPs have undergone specialized training which should change that, he said.