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Grass fire leads to marijuana

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A small grass fire and a trailer hobbling along with a missing wheel on I-15 near Cedar City led Utah Highway Patrol troopers to about $1.6 million worth of marijuana and three individuals suspected of trying to sell it on Wednesday morning, police said.

Officers were first alerted to a sport-utility vehicle pulling the trailer with a missing wheel about 7:30 a.m., said Department of Public Safety spokesman Jeff Nigbur. Police next learned that sparks from the trailer had started a grass fire near mile marker 47.

While firefighters were battling the blaze, an order to attempt to locate the SUV was broadcast to all law enforcers in Iron County, Nigbur said. An off-duty officer who happened to hear the order saw the vehicle and stopped it.

When the grass fire was safely contained, officers traveled about four miles north to the stopped SUV and questioned the driver.

"There were some red flags that came up," Nigbur said of the interview.

Police asked the man if they could search his vehicle, and he agreed. During the search, a drug dog on the scene began sniffing the trailer and "went crazy," Nigbur said.

Seeing the dog's reaction, the man dropped his guard and told police he wanted to work with them, Nigbur said. He told them of 782 pounds of marijuana locked in the trailer. The man also called two of his associates in Las Vegas and told them to come quickly to help.

Troopers, a SWAT team and a Department of Public Safety helicopter staked out the area. Within four hours, a man and woman arrived.

The couple and the SUV driver were arrested without incident and are being held in the Iron County Jail. They likely will face federal felony charges of marijuana possession with intent to distribute, Nigbur said.

Investigators have pegged the retail value of the marijuana at between $500,000 and $800,000, but it could be sold on the street for twice as much, Nigbur said.

E-mail: RPalmer@desnews.com