WASHINGTON COUNTY — More than 1,500 marijuana plants found growing in the foothills near Pine Valley will be torched with diesel fuel as soon as a judge approves the $3 million bonfire, a St. George police spokesman said Monday.
The pot plants, found clumped in dozens of small plots and hidden beneath large trees, were reported by a man hiking in the remote region, said Craig Harding, public information officer.
"He sort of stumbled across it, right out in the middle of nowhere in the forest," Harding said.
When members of the Washington County Drug Task Force arrived to check out the reported marijuana field Friday, three men ran from the area and were later caught with the help of a private helicopter pilot from St. George.
A fourth suspect was found Saturday in the nearby town of Veyo. All four men were jailed on suspicion of cultivation of marijuana, and three of the suspects are being held for deportation to Mexico, Harding said.
"These guys were armed, 24-seven, with guns and ammo," Harding said. "If you ever think you've seen marijuana being cultivated, or any other illegal drug, be sure to leave the area and call police. These guys were dangerous."
It took three days for officers from several law enforcement agencies — including the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Drug Enforcement Agency — and local search and rescue teams to help collect, inventory and clear the field of the illegal plants.
"We had officers hiking all over the area to make sure they got everything out of there," Harding said. "This wasn't for local consumption, though. It was bound for other markets."
Hundreds of marijuana plants up to 13 feet tall were growing in pockets scattered throughout the makeshift farm, or found already cut for harvest and hung out to dry in a field camp, he added.
"They had an elaborate watering system all hooked up, too, with pipe running out to each plant. There were several camps set up for people to live out there. It had obviously been there for quite some time, probably more than a year," Harding said.
The street value of the pot is between $2 million and $3 million, he said.
An estimated 50 pounds of marijuana were dried and street-ready to sell for up to $250,000, and there was ample evidence that at least one previous harvest had taken place, he said.
Officers hauled off the massive crop of pot to a secure location after packing it into a 14-foot trailer, Harding said.