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Rangers shut down biggest pot garden in state forest history

Written by Jim Hook/Chambersburg Public Opinion | Jul 11, 2017 7:42 AM
tuscaroraSTATEforest.jpg

Tuscarora State Forest is located in the mountains east of the Juniata River. (Photo: Courtesy)

(Port Royal) -- Hundred-year-old trees were cut down in Tuscarora State Forest to make way for marijuana gardens.

State forestry officials on June 29 picked nearly 1,000 marijuana plants growing in the state forest in Mifflin County. Bureau of Forestry officials believe the pot growing operation is the largest ever uncovered in a Pennsylvania state forest.

The forest rangers' investigation included tips from fishermen and photographs from several trail cameras. Three months of legwork led rangers to a Juniata County man, who has yet to be charged for the operation.

The initial charges against Jeremy Leach, 35, are based on what Pennsylvania State Police found on June 29 in his home at 107 Summit St., Mifflin. Pennsylvania State Police charged both Leach and his 37-year-old wife, Erin, with a felony -- manufacture, delivery or possession with intent to manufacture or deliver. Each also was charged with two misdemeanors -- possession of drug paraphernalia and possessing a controlled substance.

During a search on June 29 of the house and property, troopers found a growing operation in the basement (three plants) and in a dog kennel (60 plants), according to court documents. A bedroom that appeared to be a processing room held several pounds of marijuana, digital scales and several mason jars. Mason jars are typically used to store marijuana because they can be vacuum-sealed to control odor. The basement also contained fertilizer, potting soil and growing containers.

Jeremy Leach told police he was not selling the pot, but growing all of it for personal use, according to court documents. Erin Leach, 37, told police that she did not know what her husband did, other than smoke weed.

The marijuana in the state forest was growing in two plots, each with three gardens, according to rangers' notes of the incident. Chicken wire surrounded the beds. Vegetation was woven into the chicken wire. Small bells, painted black, were attached to the fence. Stumps and log butts were painted with black spray paint.

The grower probably had been operating for months before he was discovered, according to Steve Wacker, assistant district forester at Tuscarora. Trees were felled to make clearings. Some of the timber was used to make raised growing beds. Dense thickets of mountain laurel screened the plots.

Wacker estimates that less than two acres of forest was cut.

"We were especially disappointed that one large conifer was cut down," Wacker said. "A couple of trees were well over 100 years old. We're trying to assess the dollar-value of the trees."

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is entitled to compensation for the lost timber.

Trespass growing

Growing marijuana on public land is not a new idea.

The Atlantic Monthly recently reported that "national forests and even national parks have seen a surge in large-scale illegal 'trespass grows,' some with tens of thousands of plants spread across dozens of acres. As much as 80 percent of illegal pot eradicated in California is grown on federal lands."

Authorities since 2012 have found five illegal grows worth millions of dollars in or near San Isabel National Forest in Colorado.

Illegal grows can present problems for forest visitors.

"We're always concerned about booby traps," Wacker said. "People get very protective of them (the plants) as the dollar value grows."

Illegal marijuana grows are rare in Pennsylvania's state forests, according to DCNR spokesman Terry Brady. The state forests occasionally see small plots of marijuana, but nothing like this.

"This is something that happens periodically," Wacker said. "This was the biggest one, especially in the number of trees cut down."

Rangers suspect that Leach also is responsible for four illegal marijuana gardens that authorities found in August 2015 off Pine Ridge Road in Bratton Township. The 600 plants were more than 4 feet tall when state police destroyed them. Rangers deployed cameras and photographed a man, wearing a booney hat and military-style clothing.

The man was not identified at the time, according to Wacker.

Tuscarora pot gardens

Two fishermen on April 1 noticed that large trees had been cut down along Licking Creek in Bratton Township, Mifflin County, according to the rangers. They flagged down a ranger in the Karl Guss Picnic area to tell him. Rangers set up cameras in the area on April 3.

Another fisherman told rangers on March 28 that he may have stumbled onto a marijuana growing operation also along the creek. Rangers found the area on April 20. They also found a trail camera at the site and downloaded the images. A man's face was in several of close-ups. He resembled the man photographed at the 2015 grow site. He wore a booney hat and military-style clothing.

Rangers set up cameras at the site on June 6. A man was photographed on June 11 spraying the plants and tending the fences. Around the same time a Chevrolet Colorado was photographed in a nearby parking lot. Rangers ran the license plate number, and got driver's license photos of the owners. A driver's license photo matched trail-cam photographs.

A herbicide contractor on June 27 found a similar grow a half mile away. Rangers on the next day photographed the site. They found an empty can of black spray paint and a dead opossum in a foot-hold trap.

Forestry officials during the day of June 29 bagged 364 plants from one grow and 610 from the second, according to rangers' notes.

Rangers on June 29 also acquired a search warrant for the Leach's house. They assembled with state police and approached the house around 8:30 p.m. Leach and his wife were taken into custody without incident.

Authorities searched the house until midnight. Rangers reported an "extensive" growing operation at the house. Handguns, rifles and a shotgun were found. Notebooks and diaries detailed growing operations. A map of Tuscarora State Forest was tacked to the wall of an upstairs room.

A preliminary hearing for the Leaches is set for July 27 with Magisterial District Judge Jacqueline Leister in Port Royal, Juniata County.

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between WITF and Public Opinion Online.

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