Collateral Impact: How big is the black market for marijuana in El Paso, Teller counties?

Author: Kaitlin Durbin - July 2, 2018 - Updated: July 2, 2018

The red pins represent general locations — not exact addresses — where law enforcement agencies in El Paso and Teller counties have seized marijuana from illegal grow operations in 2018. Blue pins represent seizures from grows in 2017. This may not be an exhaustive list because agencies said they withheld addresses where investigations are ongoing. (Courtesy of Google Maps)

Edward Cook was surprised by what he thought was the sound of a garbage truck pulling up early to his house on a cool Jan. 17 morning. He’s 85 years old but active, and he hurried to his garage to drag his refuse can to the end of the driveway to avoid waiting another week for pickup.

But as the garage door lifted away, he saw not the expected garbage man but the barrels of half a dozen guns, all pointing at him. With a start, he threw his hands into the air before a man in a SWAT uniform barked for him to go back inside. He realized quickly they’d come for his neighbors.

Law enforcement officers, heavily armed and dressed in tactical gear, would search two homes that day on Royal Birkdale Road in Falcon — one directly to Cook’s west and the other across the street — seizing 127 marijuana plants and a gun from makeshift illegal grows that had been flagged for stealing electricity. Authorities would be back two months later to raid a third, seizing 60 more plants.

Cook sighed in relief. He’d been waiting for this day for two years — since the neighbors moved in and began “sledge-hammer type construction” on a home just barely 12 years old. It didn’t take long to figure out they were converting the property into an extensive home grow, he said.

“For a while, I said I can live with it, I guess, as long as it doesn’t bother me, but the smell, it’d knock you down,” Cook said of living in a neighborhood with three known grows and a fourth suspected. “I’m glad they’re gone.”

Clusters of addresses where law enforcement say they have busted illegal marijuana grows across El Paso and Teller counties over the last two years suggest that Cook’s experience is not uncommon. Several other areas have been subject to multiple raids: Jones Road in Peyton; Big Springs and Yoder roads north of Yoder; Wiesner and Meier roads outside Ellicott; Catch Pen Road in Falcon; metro Woodland Park.

In Colorado Springs, grows form seemingly parallel lines down the city’s main corridors, Interstate 25 and Powers Boulevard, which law enforcement say traffickers use to ship weed to the East Coast where it can fetch three times the profit.

Mapped out, the locations offer the first picture of the size and scope of the area’s black market for marijuana, showing no part of the county is unaffected. The grows are nestled in residential neighborhoods where homes are separated by just a few feet, and amid endless fields in secluded parts of the county.

And law enforcement agencies say there’s another 650 that have yet to be shut down.

“Up here, marijuana is the new meth, that’s how prevalent it is,” El Paso Sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Schulz told The Gazette in March.


Upping the pressure

In years past, agencies say they were helpless against the black market because of loopholes in the law that allowed homeowners to legally grow up to 99 plants per person with the right medical paperwork. But that protection ended in January, when a strict 12-plant-per-home limit took effect.

With the change, El Paso and Teller counties’ sheriffs promised a day of reckoning. Records show they’re following through.

In the first five months of the year, agencies across the two counties reported investigating 113 suspected grows, 69 of which they determined to be illegal (There may be additional locations that law enforcement withheld citing a pending investigation). From those homes, law enforcement seized 6,013 marijuana plants, 1,144 pounds of processed marijuana and 27 guns, among other things.

The Gazette mapped only those locations where illegal grows were confirmed.

Most of those busts — 58 — were in El Paso County, where Sheriff Bill Elder has praised the “incredible tempo” of eradication and predicted marijuana warrants would outnumber all other warrants by 2-to-1 by the end of the year.

“I don’t know the numbers for sure, but I would venture a guess (that) we lead the state today in illegal black market marijuana grows,” Elder said last month, explaining that if other counties had as many grows “we would hear about it.”

Elder said his office will continue posting a list of addresses searched and plants seized each month going forward.

By plant count, most of El Paso County’s grows aren’t the sizable operations law enforcement had been warning were thriving under the guise of medical marijuana. The majority of locations had 60 or fewer plants. Eighteen had more than 100 and one had 598.

But a June raid at a home off Hahn Road in Calhan gives some indication of how significant even a few plants can be. Overall, the operation was found to have roughly 300 marijuana plants in various stages of growth, but at least 40 of the mature plants were over 6 feet tall with bud clusters larger than a grown man’s hand. Deputies estimated each of the plants was capable of producing up to a pound of marijuana per growing cycle — there are typically three in a year.

Times that by the 187 plants removed from homes on Royal Birkdale Road and you have the potential to produce 561 pounds of consumable weed each year on a street the length of a standard metropolitan city block and just feet from Balcon Park , where children can be heard playing most afternoons.

“I definitely noticed the smell,” one Royal Birkdale resident told The Gazette in June.


Massive electricity use

It wasn’t the smell that initially tipped law enforcement off to the grows. It was theft of utilities.

Search warrants for the properties showed that the investigation started with one house, 12821 Royal Birkdale Road, which had been flagged by Mountain View Electric for tapping into the electrical box and stealing $2,599 worth of electricity in three months. The tactic is used often by black market growers to avoid detection, officials say.

A typical home uses between 600-700 kilowatt hours of electricity per month. These homes were pulling anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000, the warrants said.

Residents had already been suspicious.

Cook bought his home on Royal Birkdale on a whim in 2011 while he and his wife were visiting their daughter from Mississippi. It was a quiet spot in a growing neighborhood that seemed to cater to homeowners their age. Then, in 2015, Cook said an elderly Hispanic man and his adult son moved next door and things started to get weird.

First the “sledge-hammer type construction.” Then the son disappeared — Cook said the neighbors told him the man was run over and killed while walking less than two miles from their home, but it wasn’t reported in the news and no services were held. After that, he rarely saw anyone coming or going from the home — not even to put out their trash, which he assumed was being trucked elsewhere. But he’d hear people at night and, though it was dark, he could make out his neighbors carrying in planting pots and what looked to him like oxygen tanks, or carrying out duffel bags to waiting cars with Florida license plates.

“They did most of this stuff late at night and they were really quiet about it,” Cook said. “I think half of the cars from Florida have been here at one time or another.”

Two other neighbors living on the street confirmed Cook’s account, though they asked that their names not be used for fear of retaliation.

They reported hearing large U-Haul-type trucks frequently visiting at least two of the three homes, and they told stories of the skittish Spanish-speaking residents who feared the mention of the “policía” and rarely were seen, except briefly at night and often while carrying packages to vehicles. They also noticed a skunky smell that only seemed to get worse over time.

“I didn’t know it was that bad of a problem until the busts happened,” one of the residents said. “I just thought they were heavy smokers and I didn’t really have a problem with that but I didn’t like the smell. I didn’t like it for my kids, especially.”

A fourth resident, Ryan Ross, didn’t notice anything from where his house is positioned near the center of the street. He said he wasn’t even aware there had been raids.

“Most of the time I just kind of keep to myself,” Ross said. “If I’m not directly involved in something then I kind of just don’t care.”

The compact suburb of Royal Birkdale Road is in stark contrast to Meier and Wiesner roads on the county’s eastern plains, where clusters of busts also have occurred. Out there, neighbors are scarce and fields stretch in every direction as far as the eye can see.

The perpendicular dirt roads don’t look like much. They are spotted with dilapidated trailers, rundown vehicles and ruts so deep they resemble a dirt bike course. A parked semitrailer bed marks the entrance along with a single sign: “Slow down, kids and pets.” And then, traces of wealth — a shiny silver BMW and three corrugated metal buildings newer and larger than any home there.

The buildings were among the seven properties authorities searched on the two roads in May; 878 marijuana plants were seized.

During a recent visit to the properties, a woman said they were engaged in beekeeping. When asked about the illegal marijuana grows from before, a second woman said through a translator that she didn’t want to talk. She flailed her hands in a shooing motion. A younger man watched the interaction from the window of their double-wide trailer.

There was no indication marijuana had returned to the property.


New neighbors, new hope

In the past, law enforcement say busting illegal grows was like chasing their tails. They’d knock down one just to have 10 more pop up, often involving the same people.

“It was a never-ending cycle,” El Paso County deputy Schulz said.

That’s changing now.

Schulz said they are using new tactics to shut grows down “100 percent,” such as cutting power to the location until altered wiring is restored to code or requesting liens on the properties. As a result, he says the number of grows popping up across the county has slowed and existing growers seem to be taking the hint, moving not just to a new location but out of the county.

“I think a lot people are getting nervous,” Schulz said. “They don’t want to deal with us continuing to take their product, so I think they’re moving on to an extent.”

Cook doesn’t know where his former neighbors moved to, but he knows they’re no longer on his street. Soon after the busts, residents in the two homes nearest to him moved out. Then went the occupants of a third home farther down the street, which hadn’t been raided but whose occupants he says left a dumpster full of empty planters. A March raid rounded up the last.

All four of the properties are owned by the same entity, the Jose Leon Revocable Trust. Busts have also occurred at three of the other 24 properties Leon or his trust own in the county. Neither Leon nor his daughter Leslie Leon, who identifies herself as the properties’ manager, could be reached for comment.

With the grows gone, Cook says the air has cleared and new owners are moving in. He hasn’t met his immediate neighbors to the west yet, but says he’s seen nothing worrisome. As he stood talking in his driveway during the lunch hour a man in a trades vehicle pulled next door and waved. Kids could be heard playing inside.

Other residents on the street say they’re also encouraged by the new family’s friendliness. One said a man popped over to say “If you need anything, just drop on by.” The other reported exchanging small talk and a wave.

“I’ve already got a good feeling,” he said.

Kaitlin Durbin

Kaitlin Durbin