Frightful Risk for Medical Pot Users

Home-invasion robbers don't care who's growing or using the marijuana.


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Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Author: Ralph Montaņo and Niesha Gates -- Bee Staff Writers
Published: Tuesday, October 15, 2002
Copyright: 2002 The Sacramento Bee
Contact: [email protected]

A bold, daytime home-invasion robbery targeting a marijuana garden in El Dorado County has alarmed law-enforcement officials and highlighted risks for growers of medicinal pot.

Four gunmen dressed as FBI and ATF agents forced their way into a family's rural Lotus home last week and took 20 plants -- which the homeowner told authorities were for medicinal purposes -- and about $300 in cash.

"This is the first one of this magnitude that I'm aware of," said Lt. Kevin House, public information officer for the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department.

In Sacramento County, two thefts related to marijuana cultivation have been reported recently. Last week, three juveniles stole three marijuana plants from the yard of a Sacramento man, who told police he was certified to use pot for medicinal purposes.

Last month in North Highlands, five robbers barged into a mobile home and pistol-whipped a man before stealing about 20 plants that were being grown illegally, sheriff's investigators said.

Home-invasion robberies occur every year, especially in September and October, when marijuana is mature and ready for harvest, said Dan Minter, a Sacramento County sheriff's robbery detective.

"If you grow pot, you are running a risk of getting robbed. It's that simple," he said.

A U.S. Justice Department report points out the emergence of violence against marijuana growers. The August report by the department's National Drug Intelligence Center also noted that home-invasion robberies in California and Alaska have targeted medical pot growers.

Home-invasion robberies are not tracked in local crime statistics, but Sacramento County detectives estimate as many as 50 occur each year. They estimate that about 90 percent of them are drug-related and that growers without a medical permit are less likely to report the theft, Minter said.

For members of the American Alliance for Medical Cannabis who grow pot, robberies are a big concern. Medical marijuana users -- generally people suffering from symptoms of AIDS, cancer or chronic pain -- are hardly in any condition to fight off robbers, said National Director Jay Cavanaugh of West Hills in Southern California.

"It is unfortunate that this medicine costs about $20 to grow and can get $400 to $500 (an ounce) on the street," he said. "We tell our members to be very discreet. If not, it is like putting out a welcome mat for someone to kick in the front door."

The Oct. 7 afternoon break-in at William Nugent's El Dorado County home has stolen his peace of mind and left his family shaken.

Toting loaded rifles and handguns and dressed in law-enforcement garb -- which included gun belts, an FBI vest and caps, and a federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms bulletproof vest and cap -- the men held the family at gunpoint while they robbed their home on Sampson Ranch Road.

"This one guy had a shotgun pointed at me, and I started questioning him, asking 'Where's your search warrant?' and 'Why didn't you announce yourself as officers?' " Nugent said. "That just seemed weird to me. That's when I looked away at my daughter, and the guy clocked me on the head with a gun."

The robbers' violent behavior, coupled with their attempt to impersonate law-enforcement officers, took home invasion to a new level, El Dorado County deputies said.

"We're concerned not only with where this gear came from but also the way that all of this stuff was used and abused," House said. "It certainly created the image of premeditation and conspiracy."

Three suspects have been arrested on suspicion of home-invasion robbery, armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and impersonating a peace officer, House said. The clothing, ammunition and firearms, as well as the marijuana plants, were found in a U-Haul truck, one of the getaway vehicles.

Deputies are analyzing fingerprints found on one of the two getaway vehicles, which may yield the identity of the fourth suspect.

Brock Daniel Hickey, 22, and James John Hardy, 26, both of Rancho Cordova, and Robert Lowell Wise, 21, of Citrus Heights were scheduled for arraignment last week but chose to wait for legal representation before entering their pleas. All were being held in the El Dorado County jail. A preliminary hearing is scheduled Monday.

Although authorities are still investigating how the men obtained the clothing, the ATF bulletproof vest is believed to be federal property stolen from an agent's car years ago, ATF spokeswoman Marci McKee said. The FBI is considering federal charges in the case.

Nugent said he didn't advertise the fact that he used marijuana for medicinal purposes, but his caution hasn't helped him or his family feel any safer as they try to get on with life.

"My insides are still shaking from it," Nugent said. "We're doing better, but I think we all need some counseling."

The El Dorado County robbery occurred four years and a day after a Fair Oaks hom-invasion robbery turned deadly.

On Oct. 6, 1998, 18-year-old Riley Haeling was shot five times as he used his body to protect a 15-year-old girl from intruders who burst into her family's Fair Oaks home in search of medical marijuana. Jennifer Salmon, 15, was shot twice and survived. This month, two men were convicted of Haeling's murder.

Sacramento sheriff's spokesman Sgt. James Lewis said there is no evidence indicating that the number of robberies is rising, but he said medical growers should be aware that they are taking the same risks as those who grow marijuana without a permit.

"It makes no difference to the robbers if the marijuana is being grown for medical use or not," Lewis said. "It's all smokes or sells the same to them."

About the Writer

The Bee's Ralph Montaņo can be reached at (916) 321-1909 or [email protected]


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