An illegal grow operation, a coordinated extortion plot, violent threats, false claims, and an intense police raid…sounds like something you’d see on a crime show. However, this was not the story line of an episode of CSI – everything described above took place in a series of happenings within the past two months right here on the outskirts of Fort Collins.
Ultimately culminating in the arrest of seven men, this wasn’t the case of a few friends just growing some pot plants illegally in their garage. There was way more planning and deviance that went into this grow op, and in my opinion, it’s guys like these that give marijuana a bad name and ruin it for others.
It all began when 35-year-old Mario Garcia contacted the property owner of a 40-acre lot on Buffalo Range Lane in Wellington. The owner of the residence, who’s name continues to be kept private, was living in California at the time, so the men spoke over the phone regarding Garcia’s interest in the location. Garcia was very interested in the property, but not for the reasons he claimed when speaking with the owner over the phone. Blatantly lying, Garcia told the property owner that he was an agent from West Coast real estate, and was negotiating deals around the area and in Denver on behalf of a farming enterprise. Believing the false story, the owner then informed Garcia where the keys to the property were, and authorized him to check out the premises on September 4. Turns out, Garcia brought a few friends along with him for the grand tour, and the men did way more than just scope out the house, outbuildings, and open land – they completely took over the property, moving right in and even doing some renovation in order to start growing ample amounts of marijuana plants. Under Colorado law, adults are permitted to grow up to 6 plants at a time for recreational use at their home, but in this situation, the number of plants went above and beyond the amount allotted for a single person, and furthermore, even the legal amount for seven people.
Not being in town, the property owner had no idea that the men had set up camp at his residence, and in the meantime was becoming frustrated and skeptical of Garcia, especially after asking for both employment and identification verification records, and instead receiving fake ones. The property owner admitted that he felt pressured and threatened by how Garcia was acting towards him, another factor that made him very leery to sign the lease. Garcia even tried forcing the landlord into renting the property by depositing $8,400 into his bank account, despite the owner’s growing skepticism and unwillingness to sign off on the rental property. As the month continued, the landlord started receiving more and more bullying threats from Garcia. Some of these threats even being racial, claiming that he was purposely not renting to Hispanics, and that Garcia had very powerful attorneys who would be capable of taking the property owner to court and ensuring that he lost out on thousands of dollars in the future.
As the battle between the two men dragged on, and as Garcia along with his six-man posse continued with their large-scale, illegal grow operation taking place a property they were essentially trespassing on, none of them expected or were prepared for what would happen on September 19. It was on this day that an actual real estate agent also contacted the land owner in California, expressing interest in renting out the 40-acre Wellington property. Just as the landlord had done with Garcia weeks prior, he again gave the new agent access to where the keys were, and gave an invitation to go check out the residence. Expecting the property to be vacant, the agent was certainly surprised to instead be greeted by a large pit bull and several Hispanic men demanding to know why the agent was there. The rude and aggressive actions of the men scared the agent off that day, but sensing that something seemed off about the whole scenario, the agent reported it to the police.
On September 25, law enforcement paid a visit to the property – again, not something Garcia or the six other men were expecting, and what came from it was definitely not what the landlord was prepared to find either. Police raided the premises and discovered 75 pounds of sale-ready marijuana along with 245 live plants. Investigators say that the raid also allowed them to break up a recently established and also very elaborate pot distribution ring.
During questioning, Ruddie Lopez, pictured in the bottom right, claimed that all of the marijuana found on the property was his, and that being a medical marijuana patent justified the amount of plants he had. He went on to say that he, himself actually smokes and eats at least 200 pounds of the marijuana that was found. Of course this sounds like a lie, mostly because it is. Authorities further investigated the case, and with the help of the Department of Revenue, records indicated that none of the seven men were legally licensed to grow or sell pot whatsoever. All of the men however, did take part in conspiring the extortion/grow op plot, and were planning on taking profits from the sales. The ringleader, Mario Garcia, is being held on a $300,000 bond and faces felony drug and extortion charges. The other six men are being held on bonds of $100,000 and are facing felony charges of intent to distribute, illegal marijuana cultivation, criminal mischief and burglary. As of last week, jail records indicate that at least two of the men have posted bond. Investigators say that several of the men who were involved in this case specifically came to Colorado from Florida with the intention of growing and selling pot. The investigation is still ongoing, and law enforcement are working on making sure no other cases like this have been happening elsewhere in Colorado.
Like I said earlier, it’s scum bags like these guys that ruin the allowance and leeway that residents in Colorado have been granted through legalization. We are allowed to grow marijuana legally here, but when the plant becomes associated with crime, rather than being something positive and progressive, it only adds to the negative stigma that so many are working on trying to erase. Taking it to the next level and causing damage to the lives’ of others is when it crosses the line and raises red flags to other states who are considering legalization. Of course there are illegal grow ops taking place in every state all the time, but when people specifically travel to our state and take advantage of our advancements, it leaves a bad taste in Coloradans’ mouths and overall makes our state look bad.