Police search 2 homes after $7.5M worth of pot found during fire

YAKIMA, Wash. - Police searched two Yakima-area homes Friday following the discovery of an estimated $7.5 million worth of marijuana earlier this week. Also, authorities in Klickitat County announced they had seized $20 million worth of the plants.

There's no immediate indication the actions were related, but the seizures show the pot-growing industry remains active in the region.

Local, state and federal law enforcement officers served search warrants at two Yakima homes early Friday. They arrested a 45-year-old man, and said there could be additional arrests.

Authorities said his arrest stemmed from an ongoing investigation into a marijuana-growing operation uncovered during the Cowiche Mill Road range fire last Sunday. Firefighters discovered the grow operation while fighting the 6,200-acre blaze.

The marijuana - some 2,500 mature plants with an estimated street value of $7.5 million - was growing in a ramshackle greenhouse on Carvo Road, north of Tieton Drive.

Evidence recovered during a search of the arrested man's home at 2603 W. King Court tied him to the greenhouse, said Sgt. Al Escalera, supervisor of the Lower Valley LEAD task force that carried out the searches.

Officers also served a search warrant at 908 N. Ninth Ave. that yielded additional information, Escalera said.

"We are still investigating. We are trying to establish a couple more leads," he said, several hours after agents served the warrants about 7 a.m.

County property records indicate the man purchased the greenhouse and other structures on the property in 2005. He had rented out the greenhouse to others, Escalera said.

The suspect is in the Yakima County jail, where he faces possible charges of manufacturing marijuana with intent to deliver.

Meanwhile, Klickitat County authorities announced Friday that 18,000 plants, valued at $20 million, were confiscated from two sites west of Bickleton earlier this week.

Agents found 12,000 plants at one of the sites and arrested two people early Thursday. No one was arrested at the first site, uncovered Wednesday, where 6,000 plants were found.

Authorities used aerial reconnaissance to locate the two sites.

The region's climate and remote areas have attracted marijuana growers for years.

In 2004, some 65,000 plants were found growing near Satus Pass on the Yakama reservation. In 2008, about 167,000 plants were uprooted in Yakima County and parts of the Yakama reservation, which extends into Klickitat County. The value of those plants surpassed that of the state's entire grape harvest, which was estimated at $144 million a year earlier.

On Friday, neighbors of the King Court home, located in a cul-de-sac west of Tahoma Cemetery, said they had no indication of possible illegal activity at the one-story ranch style house.

"You don't expect something like this in this neighborhood," said Teresa McCosh , 48, who has lived in the area for 10 years. "You don't see a lot of traffic that would give it away."

Escalera said the suspect had at one time operated a landscaping business but was currently working in landscaping at a Montessori school. Escalera said investigators believe the marijuana grow had been conducted for at least two seasons prior to its discovery.

Numerous agencies carried out the searches. In addition to LEAD, Yakima County sheriff's deputies, Yakima police, the U.S. Marshal Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also were involved.