Drug Enforcement: Cops say Stevinson pot crop brought in $9 million a year

Multi Agency Narcotics Task Force agents uprooted and seized more than 13,000 marijuana plants from a garden off of Third Avenue just east of Cemetery Road in Stevinson on Monday. The plants were mixed with alfalfa and yellow mustard weeds.

STEVINSON -- Law enforcement officers seized 13,400 marijuana plants in Stevinson on Monday morning and four people were arrested in Clovis and Fresno for the crop's cultivation.
Merced Multi-Agency Narcotic Task Force officers found the crop on a 3-acre parcel between Third Street and Cemetery Road.

The 10:30 a.m. bust was a result of a yearlong investigation involving the Fresno County Narcotics Enforcement Team, the Fresno Meth Task Force and the Merced County Sheriff's Office.

Praselit Chanthasen, 55; Onesy Chanthavong, 48; and Phong Phansopha, 45, all of Fresno, and Vanh Lawphahan, 44, of Clovis were later arrested at their residences.

Officers seized $40,000 in cash at Lawphahan's residence; $23,000, two handguns and three marijuana plants at two other Clovis residences and 410 plants in a field at Cherry and North avenues in Fresno. All seizures were related to the suspects, Fresno County Sheriff's Lt. Steve Wilkins said.

"It looks like they've been doing this for two to three years out at the (Stevinson) site," Dean Johnston, supervisor for the Department of Justice of the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, said.

The crop was worth $8 million or $9 million annually at street value, Johnston said.

Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said marijuana is selling for $3,500 a pound and each plant produces up to a pound.

Of the 13,400 plants seized in Stevinson, 11,400 were fully budded plants that had been planted about two months ago and 2,000 were small, cloned plants, Johnston said.

"This is very atypical of how marijuana is typically grown," said Pazin. "This apparently is a year-round operation."

It was the second bust in the Central Valley where the marijuana plants were hidden by a traditional crop, Johnston said, adding that squash blocked the view of marijuana from the road.

Pazin said the plants were unique in that they ranged from 12 to 16 inches in height, compared to the usual four-to-six-foot plants.

"The crooks have become so sophisticated in growing this illegal drug that they get the same yield and same density in these smaller plants than the larger plants that are harvested in the August, September time frame," he said.

Lawphahan, Chanthavong and Phansopha were jailed on suspicion of cultivation and possession of marijuana and remained in the Fresno County Jail on Monday night in lieu of $80,000 bails. Chanthasen was arrested on suspicion of cultivation and remained in jail in lieu of a $40,000 bail, Wilkins said.

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