Officials find pot-growing setup in underground bunker near Elsinore

Monday, August 25, 2008

ELLSINORE, Mo. -- An ongoing investigation culminated Saturday morning with authorities seizing a suspected indoor marijuana-growing operation from a bunker at a rural residence east of Ellsinore.

About three days ago, Carter County Sheriff Greg Melton received information from a confidential informant about a "subject [who] had a hydro-grow [operation] in his house," said Carter County Reserve Deputy Johnny Brannum. "Through continuing investigations and interviews, [the department] obtained a warrant to do a flyover with a FLIR [forward looking infrared device] from the Missouri National Guard."

A National Guard helicopter from Jefferson City with a FLIR unit mounted on it performed a flyover Friday night searching for heat sources, Brannum said.

As the helicopter made its flyover, "it detected what they thought was abnormal heat readings from the house," Brannum said.

At 9 a.m. Saturday, Brannum said, Melton and officers with the Missouri State Highway Patrol did a "knock-and-talk" at the residence, where the homeowner gave them permission to search.

Assisting Carter County deputies and Highway Patrol troopers in their search of the residence were officers from the Van Buren Police Department and Ozark County Sheriff's Department, Melton said.

"The first pass through of the house didn't find anything," Brannum said. "The Ozark County Sheriff's Department had a portable FLIR unit, which is handheld.

"We had an officer from their department [who is] trained in handling it walk through, and he picked up an abnormal reading in the wall of the garage."

A false wall, Melton said, was found in the garage area.

"Entry through the wall led to a hidden staircase, which led to a large two-room, concrete bunker under the residence," Melton said. "The enclosed bunker contained a sophisticated cultivation operation of marijuana plants.

"The bunker contained plants in all stages of growth [including] seedling plants, mature plants, plants which had been harvested; plants hung to dry in preparation for processing and several bags processed and ready for distribution."

Brannum estimated there were between 125 to 150 suspected marijuana plants growing in the bunker.

The two rooms, Melton said, contained several large heat lamps, which provided "continuous light for quick growth and maturity of the plants. The illegal operation allowed a continuous harvest of marijuana plants 365 days a year."

Brannum described the setup as an "ongoing operation. This person has done this successfully for quite a while. The bunker in that house was designed for that reason."

Everything from the suspected marijuana plants and overhead-mounted grow lights to aquariums, fertilizer, cultivation equipment and a set of scales "used to weigh the plants" was seized as evidence, Brannum said.

"There was three pickup truck loads of stuff we loaded up; [everything] was transported to Willow Springs, Troop G," because the Highway Patrol has a facility large enough to house everything, Brannum said. "They're processing it."

The investigation, Melton said, is ongoing and several arrests are expected.

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