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Big guns called in for pot probe

September 24, 2010

A $7 million surveillance plane equipped to detect air, land and sea threats was flown from the Canadian border to Colorado Springs in April to assist in an investigation of marijuana-growing operations that apparently resulted in charges against six people.

The Department of Homeland Security plane, a Swiss-built Pilatus PC-12 Spectre, was requested on April 9 as the Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence task force prepared to launch a series of searches of buildings where investigators suspected marijuana was being grown illegally.

No one was arrested during the searches, which the medical marijuana industry characterized as raids on legal businesses.

“Please don’t forget to update us on arrest, search seizure statistics for this flying we have done and will do for you all. It helps us justify our expense,” an unnamed Homeland Security official wrote in an e-mail to the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, which is part of VNI and requested the plane.

The e-mail and other heavily redacted documents about the flyover were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The investigation was turned over several months ago to the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, which is reviewing the evidence, spokeswoman Kathleen Walsh said earlier this month.

No arrests or warrants stemming from the searches have been announced, but a member of the Colorado Springs Medical Cannabis Council said Friday three people were arrested this week and warrants issued for three more.

Mary McNeely said the growers facing charges have told her they were in compliance with state laws limiting the number of plants that can be grown per patient.

District Attorney Dan May has been a vocal critic of medical marijuana, particularly dispensaries where patients with a doctor’s referral and state license can buy high-grade strains of the drug. At the time of the searches in late April and early May, several in the medical marijuana community accused May of orchestrating raids to intimidate them, a charge Walsh denied.

Medical marijuana dispensaries and growing operations have exploded in the region following the U.S. Justice Department’s announcement two years ago that it would not arrest people who conformed to state laws regarding medical marijuana where voters had approved the drug’s use for treating illnesses and pain.

Colorado voters approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes in 2000.

The PC-12 flew over five sites in Colorado Springs on April 27 using a thermal imaging camera to pick out locations producing an unusual amount of heat, according to Homeland Security documents. Police often look for high heat and electricity use because of the lights and greenhouse conditions needed to grow the plants indoors.

The plane, with two Customs and Border Protection agents aboard, was sent from Great Falls, Mont., and flew two sorties over Colorado Springs totaling 4.4 hours in the air, the Homeland Security documents state. At $485 per hour to keep a PC-12 airborne, the flights cost $2,134, not including the flight time from Montana.

In the documents provided by Homeland Security, the name of the official who approved the request was blacked out.

One of the buildings the plane flew over was a warehouse on Beacon Street where a Colorado Springs police detective already had documented high electricity use and had seen marijuana plants through an open door, according to the search warrant affidavit.

The report on the plane’s mission states "patrol," and checked boxes for arrests, apprehensions and seizures.

The flight also apparently served another purpose, according to an April 19 e-mail from the unnamed federal official: “I need to get the aircraft down to Colorado next week for a show and tell.”

Homeland Security did not respond to a request for an explanation of a “show and tell.”

McNeely said the use of a Homeland Security plane for a local investigation of marijuana businesses shocked her.

“I think it’s a misuse of resources,” she said. “It’s ridiculous to bring a Border Patrol Plane to Colorado Sorings for marijuana. They should be securing our borders.”

Police Department spokesman Sgt. Steve Noblitt defended the request for assistance.

“We owe it to the citizens of Colorado Springs to use whatever resources are available to keep this community safe,” he said. “In this instance we had a case in which we believed criminal activity was going on and a partner agency was willing to assist us.”

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