KERBY, Ore. — The death of a man dropped off at the Chevron in Cave Junction earlier this month led the Josephine County Sheriff's Office to investigate a massive illegal marijuana grow in the Illinois Valley showing apparent evidence of human trafficking and involuntary servitude, according to Sheriff Dave Daniel.
About two weeks ago, Daniel said, a Hispanic man was dropped off at the Caves Chevron. He was already in poor condition and "very near death," and he passed away while being taken to the hospital. While the Sheriff was reluctant to provide further details about the investigation into the grow site, he indicated that the death was a contributing factor. The man's cause of death has yet to be determined.
More than a dozen local, state, and federal agencies or task forces participated in the pre-dawn raid on Tuesday, serving search warrants at Q-Bar-X Ranch near Kerby. Sheriff Daniel said that the search uncovered about 200,000 marijuana plants within more than 400 "hoop-houses" spread across 1,300 acres of property.
Sheriff Daniel said that about 130 workers, mostly men, had been detained for questioning at the properties, and he highlighted squalid working and living conditions discovered during the search. He said that no suspects have yet been placed under arrest, and arrests "might not even happen today" as the investigation continues.
"At this point the workers are being treated as victims," Daniel said.
Investigators are currently anticipating about four arrests, with the goal of capturing the "masterminds" of the grow.
In addition to federal authorities, agencies involved in the raid included some as distant as Deschutes County and Eugene. Sheriff Daniel said that his agency put out a request for help due to the size of the operation, bringing in 10 different SWAT teams to help the Josephine County Sheriff's Office, which does not have a team of its own. Meanwhile, Homeland Security Investigations provided interpreters to aid in the investigation.
Federal agents served a warrant for suspected humanitarian crimes while local law enforcement searched for cultivation of illegal marijuana. In all, about 250 law enforcement officers were involved in the raid.
Authorities across southern Oregon have noted the proliferation of illegal grow operations in the region. Even though they're aware of the problem, Sheriff Daniel says that it's difficult for small agencies like his to truly combat the problem.
"It's personnel, and time . . . with three JMET detectives, we're drinking through a firehose right now," said Sheriff Daniel. "It's hard to keep up with — it's impossible to keep up with the numbers of grows that are going on. And you have the twelve hoop-house grows, or you have the 200 hoop-house grows."
Daniel said that, in his opinion, the operators of these illegal grows expect to lose a few to law enforcement — but the volume of different grow sites and margin of profit seem to be such that the backers still think the endeavor is worthwhile. He said that organized crime is likely involved in funding the establishment of these black market grows, which require an extensive investment in infrastructure.
"To this point, I have no exact information — proved information — that it is cartel-run, however it has every indication," Sheriff Daniel said.
Josephine County does not currently have a code enforcement division, which Daniel said is now in the works to hold property owners accountable for these grows through citations.
Daniel said that a secondary grow operation, which used to be located on Martin Road, relocated to the Q-Bar-X Ranch property "within the last week," though there was already a grow operation up and running at the final location.
This is a developing story and will be updated with more details as they emerge.