3.14.2009

Pot grows and repercussions

The Long Thirst
Northern California’s Environmental Magazine

The Long Thirst
By LINNEA DUE

At a meeting in Mendocino County’s town of Willits in late October, what seems a fairly narrow topic—illegal water diversion on public lands—rapidly transmogrifies into a frightening evening of dying fish, dry rivers, and out-of-control toxic algae. On that chilly night, the event attracts more than a hundred people covered in fleece outer garments, many wanting to pick a bone with state regulators. It turns out at least one of the speakers has the same agenda.

Ron Pugh, a US Forest Service special agent in charge of illegal activities on public lands, has spent the past few years concentrating on illegal marijuana grows. Marijuana “gardens”—a misnomer on a grand scale—are responsible for the majority of thirsty straws draining rivers and creeks that cross public lands. Pugh flips up a slide showing the spread of illegal grows across the nation. “This, “ he says ominously, meaning Mendocino and Humboldt counties, the crown jewels of US marijuana production, “is not even one of the heaviest pockets.”

In 1995, foreign nationals, mostly Mexicans, began growing marijuana in Southern California mountains and parks. By ’97, grows had spread into every national park on the West Coast. In 2001, those grows expanded from California, Oregon, and Washington into Idaho, and now are spreading like a giant ink stain across the center of the country’s park and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands all the way to the East Coast.

Says Pugh about the sheer volume of grows, “This is not a hippie thing.” He’s come prepared with a list of comparisons between a “hippie”grow and a DTO site—one maintained by a drug trafficking organization. A traditional garden on public lands, Pugh says, has one or two growers and fewer than fifty plants. The gardener, who lives locally, hikes in every other day or so, carrying water for his plants. Firearms are uncommon, and locations are predictable. “They’re within a quarter mile of a road,” Pugh explains, “and they’re rarely uphill. White guys are lazy.”

The DTO sites, on the other hand, are as remote as the growers can get, often three miles from the nearest road. They contain an average of 6,600 plants, tended by an average of seven growers who live in tents the entire season, from May to October. The growers are aided by scanners, radios, night-vision goggles, an arsenal of weapons, and truckloads of plastic pipe to divert area streams to their plants, sometimes from as far as a half-mile away. When they abandon the site in the fall, they leave behind mountains of trash, about as much trash as a small city dump.
What they bring in is just as bad. “They smuggle in pesticides from Mexico,” Pugh says, “more potent than you can buy here. And believe me, they don’t care about the creeks.” When Pugh describes growers mixing chemicals directly in the creek to pump onto their plants, a moan ripples through the audience.

In a later email exchange, Pugh says that he’s had trouble getting people to understand the ramifications of the crisis: “That’s why I go to great effort to point out that we aren’t dealing with `just marijuana,’ but a huge environmental issue,” Pugh says. “Basically everyone cares, to some degree or other, about that.” Pugh gives his presentation about twice a month, he says, to spread the word to new people: “When they become informed,
they become outraged,” he says. “And outraged people demand action.”

The US Forest Service is not a drug agency, though recently DTO sites were reclassified as crime scenes, which allows inter-agency cooperation with local and national law enforcement. The agency can now sift through trash for phone numbers, receipts, and other tips that could extend criminal prosecution past the hired help and up to the drug lords at the top of the chain. Pugh evokes laughs when he quickly corrects himself while explaining how the combined law enforcement effort needs to locate Mr. Big—“or Ms. Big. Well, I’m pretty sure it is Mr. Big.”

Pugh emphasizes that while the marijuana grows are an enormous drain on resources both financial and environmental, they are also a huge safety issue—after all, these are public lands where anyone can hike. If you stumble on a scene, Pugh advises, retreat immediately and call for help; during this past season, DTO growers killed two hunters on BLM land in Humboldt County.

The Forest Service has no funding for cleanup and depends upon volunteers to help out. Pugh estimates that it takes $5,000 per acre to remove DTO infrastructure and another $5,000 to restore the site. “Eradicating these grows is a number-one national priority,” he says, explaining that he’s met with state and federal Congressional delegates
frequently over the past two years and that Dianne Feinstein, a member of the Senate Committee
on the Judiciary, is particularly concerned.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman supplies the local picture, noting that the county’s per capita sales of rat poison are the highest in the nation; growers buy rat poison by the pallet because watering the grow sites attracts rodents. This poison ultimately contaminates the soil and creeks while poisoning raptors and other animals that eat the dead vermin. DTO growers also routinely shoot wildlife.

Most of all, they consume water. “As you go downstream on the Eel, the river should grow,” says Allman. “Instead, it gets smaller because people are pumping into storage tanks and directly into gardens.” Allman estimates that 3.6 million pot plants are grown on public lands—“That’s 3.6 million gallons of water a day,” he says, “pumped out of our creeks and rivers.” Allman pledges to respond to anonymous GPS reports of pumps and hose: “I’ll pull pumps,” he promises. “We’ll fly tributaries. I want to see the salmon come back.”

Salmon are equal opportunity victims, not just impacted by foreign nationals growing pot on public lands. As fisheries and watershed scientist Patrick Higgins points out, many of us are killing the creeks and rivers by supporting agriculture that relies on illegal diversions and unpermitted dams. Higgins, from Arcata’s Kier Associates, comes armed with graphs showing the number of illegal diversions and dams outnumber permitted diversions all along the North Coast and in Napa and Lake counties.

Higgins recalls fishing in Mendocino County’s Outlet Creek during the ‘60s, when it was loaded with steelhead. By 1996, because of illegal drafting, parts of the creek were dry in the summer, stranding fish in deep pools—pools from which diesel pumps lift water daily. Higgins says there are 1,700 illegal diversions in Marin County alone. Flyovers show illegal ponds everywhere, for vineyards and other agricultural uses. The Napa River used to have Coho salmon, the Navarro is dry, and so is the Gualala. Creeks dry between pools that often become clogged with algae that grows in the too-warm, too-still water. When the algae blooms, it releases a nerve toxin that has poisoned dogs and wildlife.

By email, Higgins sent a chart showing the difference in fish populations during El Niño and Niña years—populations fluctuate depending upon drought and full water flows. Through drafting and illegal dams, we’ve created a couple decades of drought-like conditions, even though we’ve actually had wet years like 2005. When a real drought comes along—as it has now—the fish are already stressed and in historically low numbers. “We have a regional crisis,” Higgins says. “There’s something called public trust. We all own the fish, and we all own the water. We’ve lost public trust in this culture.”

Higgins has a laundry list of those not “minding the store,” including the California State Water Resources Control Board: “seldom seen and completely ineffective,” he charges. The water board says that because of limited resources, its enforcement style is informal. It tends to respond to violations by issuing retroactive permits for illegal diversions that may have existed for years: “They send people a postcard or an email and call it informal enforcement,” Higgins says. He calls for profound reform, including requiring that all diversions carry a permit and that management of surface and groundwater be turned over to a state agency with public trust as its watchword. Illegal dams should be torn out, he says, and unpermitted diversions penalized by administrative fines of $500 daily. “It’s just a grab,” Higgins concludes. “When you disturb landscapes, the landscape reacts. If you change the nature of a watershed, you change everything.”

Published in Terrain Magazine, Spring 2009

3.08.2009

Detective testifies in Groh murder trial

☛ TS Detective testifies in Groh murder trial 2/26/09
The Times-Standard
Posted: 02/26/2009 01:16:15 AM PST

The trial of Rodney Groh continued Wednesday with testimony delivered by a Eureka Police Department detective who investigated the death of George Giguere, a Eureka man killed in May.
Groh, 55, is accused of killing Giguere, a longtime friend, inside their Budget Hotel room in May 2008. He has pleaded not guilty.
EPD Detective Terry Liles testified Wednesday he found blood smeared on Groh's hands and spattered on his clothing the night of the alleged murder. That evidence, he said, was collected and sent to a state crime laboratory for examination.
Liles said he also took a large metal flashlight from the scene of Giguere's alleged murder into evidence.
Groh's trial is expected to continue today.

Murder trial continues for Groh

☛ TS Murder trial continues for Groh 2/12/09
Sean Garmire/The Times-Standard
Posted: 02/12/2009 01:16:42 AM PST

Rodney Groh, a 55-year-old Eureka man accused of killing his long-time friend and roommate, entered the third day of trial Wednesday, as police and a coroner testified about the scene of George Giguere's death.
Deputy District Attorney Ben McLaughlin has alleged Groh killed Giguere on the night of May 22 during an argument at the Budget Motel, where the two lived together in room 117.
Eureka Police Sgt. Steve Watson testified he responded to the scene of Giguere's death, to find Groh pacing outside the room.
Watson said Groh told him he and Giguere had been in a fight with two unknown men in the parking lot near the room. After the fight, Groh said they returned to the room, where Giguere passed out from his injuries.
Groh said they had been assaulted by the two men and fought back in self-defense, but Watson said when he questioned Groh further about the incident, he was unable to give descriptions of the alleged assailants, or say exactly where the fight took place.
”He was very vague and unable to give specifics,” Watson said.
Officers went to the parking lot and using flashlights searched the ground twice for evidence of a fight, but found “absolutely none,” Watson said.
Watson said he almost immediately noticed blood drying on Groh's hands, but he did notice any on his face.
Groh, Watson said, was considered a suspect at that point in the investigation. He was arrested and transported to the Humboldt County jail.
Humboldt County Deputy Coroner Charles Comer also testified at the trial, explaining he found bruising, abrasions and blood covering Giguere's body. Comer's testimony ended with the recess, but he will return to court when the trial resumes. Groh's trial is expected to continue Friday, but may be delayed due to maintenance issues in the courthouse.

Trial begins for man accused of killing his roommate

☛ TS Trial begins for man accused of killing his roommate 2/10/09
The Times-Standard
Posted: 02/10/2009 01:15:24 AM PST

Opening statements were made Monday in the first day of the trial of Rodney Groh, who is accused of killing George Giguere, his roommate at the time at the Budget Hotel.
An investigation by the Eureka Police Department alleges that Groh killed Giguere by beating him to death in a fight that originated over the television.
In testimony given at Groh's preliminary hearing, EPD Detective Patrick O'Neill said that throughout interviews with him, Groh maintained that “he and George were good friends, and they loved each other, and they looked out for each other and cared for each other.”
The trial continues today and Deputy District Attorney Ben McLaughlin will be submitting evidence for the prosecution.

Trial begins for man accused of killing his roommate

☛ TS Trial begins for man accused of killing his roommate 2/10/09
The Times-Standard
Posted: 02/10/2009 01:15:24 AM PST

Opening statements were made Monday in the first day of the trial of Rodney Groh, who is accused of killing George Giguere, his roommate at the time at the Budget Hotel.
An investigation by the Eureka Police Department alleges that Groh killed Giguere by beating him to death in a fight that originated over the television.
In testimony given at Groh's preliminary hearing, EPD Detective Patrick O'Neill said that throughout interviews with him, Groh maintained that “he and George were good friends, and they loved each other, and they looked out for each other and cared for each other.”
The trial continues today and Deputy District Attorney Ben McLaughlin will be submitting evidence for the prosecution.

Groh murder trial continues

☛ TS Groh murder trial continues 3/4/09
Sean Garmire/The Times-Standard
Posted: 03/04/2009 01:16:54 AM PST

A former neighbor of Rodney Groh appeared in court Tuesday for the 55-year-old man's murder trial, testifying he heard the sound of fighting coming from Groh's bedroom at the Budget Motel shortly before Groh's roommate was found dead.
Groh, who lived with 61-year-old George Giguere in room 117 at Eureka's Budget Motel, stands accused of killing his roommate on May 22, 2008.
On Tuesday, John Albertson, who lived above Giguere and Groh, testified that on the afternoon of the apparent murder he walked past the men's room and heard yelling coming from inside.
”I heard George yelling, 'I can't take it anymore, knock it off,'” Albertson said.
Giguere's remark was followed by the sound of someone being hit -- Albertson said he heard punching and the sound of a painful groan.
Albertson said he now regrets not notifying authorities, but at the time, the fighting did not seem out of the ordinary. According to Albertson, Groh often fought with Giguere publicly, and only weeks before his death, Giguere was released from the hospital after suffering a serious beating.
Around a half-hour later, Albertson returned to his room. He had not been there long before he heard Groh knocking on doors down the hallway outside his room.
”I heard Rodney's voice saying, 'Hey, how you doing?'... He was just making up conversation,” Albertson said. “That sounded totally unlike him. He doesn't talk to people like that.”
Groh knocked on Albertson's door, but he didn't answer, and Groh walked back downstairs, Albertson said.
Later that evening, Albertson again left his room to buy groceries. When he returned, he said he saw emergency response vehicles parked outside Groh's room.
According to information from the Humboldt County Coroner's Office, Giguere died of blunt force trauma to the head. Police investigators who testified at Groh's trial said Groh offered varying explanations as to how Giguere sustained his injuries. One explanation was that he and Giguere had been involved in a fight with two other men in the motel parking lot.
Toxicology reports later showed both Giguere and Groh were highly intoxicated at the time the alleged murder took place.
Groh was returned to the Humboldt County jail after trial, which is expected to continue through the week.
Sean Garmire can be reached at 441-0514 or sgarmire@times-standard.com.

Neighbor testifies at murder trial

☛ TS Neighbor testifies at murder trial 3/3/09
Sean Garmire/The Times-Standard
Posted: 03/03/2009 01:16:45 AM PST

A former neighbor of Rodney Groh spoke at the 55-year-old man's murder trial Monday, testifying that on the night of the apparent murder, Groh called him and allegedly admitted he may have killed his roommate.
Monday began the third week of trial for Groh, a Eureka man accused of killing his longtime friend and roommate, 61-year-old George Giguere, inside room 117 at the Budget Motel.
Joseph Green, who lived next door to Groh and Giguere, testified that on the afternoon of May 22 he heard the sound of a loud argument through the walls. Green said he heard banging noises and he recognized Groh's voice repeatedly yelling “shut up.”
The fight was nothing unusual, Green said. During the time Green lived next door to Groh, he said, he would often hear the man yelling at his roommate or neighbors, and he wasn't sure who Groh was yelling at on that occasion.
The sound quieted down, and some time later, Groh walked into Green's room and sat on his bed. It was a strange occurrence, Green said -- Groh had never been inside his apartment before, and he appeared to be intoxicated.
”He just walked into my room without knocking, acting really bizarre,” Green said. “He was drunk and being aggressive.”
After he was asked, Groh agreed to leave Green's apartment.
It was an uncomfortable incident for Green and he said he rode his bike to a nearby theater to watch a movie and wait for Groh to calm down. When Green
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returned to his apartment later that evening, he testified, he had only just shut his door when his phone rang. It was Groh.
Green said Groh asked him to come over to check on Giguere, who was not “waking up this time.” Green declined, and Groh allegedly replied, seemingly to himself, “I think I killed him,” Green testified.
Green told Groh to call an ambulance, and a short time later medical responders arrived to find Giguere dead from a blunt force injury on the motel room floor.
Groh was questioned at the scene by officers who testified in court he allegedly changed his story multiple times during the interview. One of Groh's explanations for Giguere's death was that he and his roommate had been involved in a fight with two other men in the motel parking lot earlier in the evening.
Groh has maintained that he and Giguere were accosted in the parking lot, and has pleaded not guilty to murder charges.
Kay Belchner, senior criminologist at the California Department of Justice laboratory in Eureka, also testified Monday, telling jurors Groh was found to have had a blood alcohol level of .4 percent when he was tested after his arrest. That blood alcohol level, Belchner said, is high enough to be life-threatening for an inexperienced drinker, but “very tolerant drinkers who have been that way for some time can function at that level.”
Authorities who investigated the scene found blood spattered on Groh and across the apartment. Belchner tested the blood, and found Groh had both Giguere's and his own blood on his hands and shirt.
Blood was also found on a large metal flashlight found next to Groh's bed. However, the blood could not be typed, Belchner said, and there was no indication whose it was.
Groh was returned to the Humboldt County jail Monday, and will return to court today for trial, which is expected to continue through the week.
Sean Garmire can be reached at 441-0514 or sgarmire@times-standard.com.

The homicides of 2008

☛ TS The homicides of 2008 12/31/08
Sean Garmire/The Times-Standard
Posted: 12/31/2008 01:27:46 AM PST

The first death ruled a homicide in 2008 in Humboldt County was 61-year-old George Giguere.
His close friend and longtime roommate, and the only suspect in the case, was arrested May 22 for his murder. Investigators with the Eureka Police Department believe Rodney Groh fought with Giguere in a Budget Hotel room in which the two men were living. According to records at the Humboldt County Superior Court, investigators believe Groh allegedly killed Giguere in the fight, by beating him to death.
Groh has pleaded not guilty.
In testimony given at Groh's preliminary hearing, EPD Detective Patrick O'Neill said throughout his interviews with Groh he maintained that “he and George were good friends, and they loved each other, and they looked out for each other and they cared for each other.”
According to O'Neill's testimony, Groh told him the two had been friends for more than 13 years, and lived together for 11 years. The fight was said to have been caused by a dispute over the television.
In early September, a murder suicide ended the life of an elderly couple in Eureka.
Investigators believe 82-year-old Leon Taylor shot his wife Beatrice Taylor, 82, with a hand gun while they sat in their car following an argument. Leon Taylor then allegedly turned the gun on himself.
No note was found at the scene, and no explanation or motive for the shootings has been released by authorities.
Later in September, 35-year-old
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Reetpaul Singh Rana was found shot to death in Alderpoint.
Authorities have released little information about Rana's death, but according to information from Humboldt County Sheriff's Office Spokeswoman Brenda Godsey, the murder appears to have been related to marijuana.
Rana's body was found in a wooded area nearly 100 miles from the burned remains of his vehicle, parked along the north side of Big Lagoon.
Authorities continue to investigate the matter, and no suspects have yet been arrested.
In October, a Fortuna woman was found strangled to death near a transient encampment along the banks of the Eel river.
Investigators believe Rosemarie Boyd, 48, had been drinking with a man along the riverbank in the night, and a toxicology report showed her blood alcohol level was 0.29 percent.
Godsey confirmed suspects have been identified and interviewed, but no arrests have been made in the case.
”There are a lot of other people who camped up and down that river bar during that time frame,” she said. “It doesn't make sense to make an arrest without first making sure that you have a good case.”
In early December, a 27-year-old man was shot to death in his home.
Garrett Benson, a UPS driver and former National Guard member who served overseas, was shot and killed, while his girlfriend, Rachel Wold, was in the same room.
According to information from the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, Benson had a large amount of marijuana growing and processed in the residence, which is a likely motive for the murder.
After nearly a week, two suspects were arrested -- 30-year-old Jonathan Watson and 31-year-old Jason Belles. According to Godsey, authorities believe Watson entered the home and attempted to restrain Benson, causing him to fight back.
He was shot three times during the struggle.
Both suspects have pleaded not guilty in the case.
Other people have lost their lives in 2008 as a result of the alleged negligence of others. However, their deaths are not included in the county's homicide count. People like 9-year-old Nicole Quigley, who was killed in a car wreck that resulted from a impromptu race held along State Route 299 on Oct. 6 -- her death is not counted in the total, because, as there was no intent to kill, her death was ruled accidental.
Nevertheless, Jason Whitmill and Anthony Flores have been charged by the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office with first-degree murder in connection to her death.
Additionally, the body of 14-year-old Curtis Huntzinger was discovered in December after 18 years of searching. That find allowed the Huntzinger family to properly bury their family member, and gave authorities additional evidence to arrest Stephen Hash on suspicion of murder.
Hash initially pleaded guilty at his arraignment, but has since been appointed an attorney, and has not yet formally entered a guilty plea.
The Huntzinger find added an additional homicide to the county.
Sean Garmire can be reached at 441-0514 or sgarmire@times-standard.com.

Officer testifies at murder trial

☛ TS Officer testifies at murder trial
Sean Garmire/The Times-Standard
Posted: 02/11/2009 01:15:23 AM PST

A recording of the 911 call made to police by Rodney Groh, a 55-year-old man accused of killing his long-time friend and roommate, was played for a jury Tuesday, during the second day of his murder trial.
The call was made by Groh from room 117 at the Budget Hotel, on the night of May 22, the night 61-year-old Eureka man George Giguere was pronounced dead from blunt force trauma. In the call, Groh reported he was not certain if Giguere was alive or dead, but added, “He's my buddy.”
James Flynn, acting captain of the Eureka Fire Department, was one of the first to respond to the incident. At the Tuesday trial, Flynn testified after arriving at the Budget Motel, responders found Giguere's still-warm body lying supine on the hotel room floor.
Upon arrival, Flynn said they found Groh inside the room, attempting to feel for Giguere's pulse. Flynn said Groh was asked to move away from the body, which was dressed only in a T-shirt, socks and underpants. According to Flynn, Groh was hesitant to move away from the body, but after he was asked several times, he moved into the hallway, where he began to pace nervously, while punching and kicking the walls, “mumbling incoherently” and yelling George's name.
Flynn said he noticed Groh's hands and shirt were spotted with dried blood. When he asked him about the blood marks, Groh replied he and Giguere had been in a fight with two other men in the hotel parking lot a few hours earlier.
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Shortly after Flynn's arrival, Eureka Police Department officer Edward Wilson arrived at the scene and began questioning Groh in the dark hallway outside the room.
Testifying at the trial Tuesday, Wilson said he immediately smelled alcohol on Groh's breath.
Wilson said he questioned Groh about the alleged fight in the parking lot, but Groh was not able to give a description of the two men, except to say they were bigger than he was.
After the alleged fight, Groh told Wilson, he returned to the room with Giguere, where they washed themselves, before Giguere suddenly became weak and collapsed.
During the questioning, Wilson said Grow “was upset -- crying at times, frantic at times.”
At one point Wilson said Groh asked him to stop taking notes, then said if he found the two men “he would take care of them himself.”
Wilson and another officer later searched the parking lot for signs of a scuffle, but found no evidence one occurred, he testified.
Groh was then handcuffed and taken into custody at the Humboldt County jail, where he was returned Tuesday afternoon on $1 million bail. His trial is scheduled to continue through the week.
Sean Garmire can be reached at 441-0514 or sgarmire@times-standard.com.