By Margie Wuebker
More than a half million dollars worth of marijuana went up in smoke Thursday. A grow light seized in a local drug raid served as the makeshift burn bin.
Lt. Bill Westgerdes from the Mercer County Sheriff's Office dumped bags, bundles and boxes of the contraband found during aerial searches of local farm fields in recent years. Officials at Dues Nursery near Celina provided a site for the incineration.
"There was enough to fill the back of a small pickup truck," Westgerdes said. "It made for a rather impressive bonfire."
Aerial searches dating back to 1999 have yielded some 675 plants. The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation & Identification and the Drug Enforcement Agency estimates the street value of a fully mature marijuana plant at $1,000 to $1,500, respectively.
Based on those figures, the value of the material burned ranges from $675,000 to $900,000. "This is marijuana that did not make it to the streets," Westgerdes said.
Mercer County Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Ingraham approved a request to proceed with incineration of the material that has occupied a sizable space in the evidence room at the sheriff's office.
Some of the marijuana came from searches conducted prior to Sheriff Jeff Grey taking office in 2001.
The sheriff's office, in cooperation with BCI&I, conducts aerial surveillance of area cornfields each summer prior to harvest. Spotters on board the aircraft radio to deputies who drive to designated areas and uproot the plants, some of which show signs of careful cultivation.
Some 50 plants were seized in northern Mercer County during a 1999 search. Additional plants have been located in successive years with law enforcement officials uprooting 272 during a two-day effort in August of this year.
No suspects have been arrested in connection with the discoveries, although Grey believes some culprits eventually were nabbed in other drug investigations.
Westgerdes expects additional incineration orders in the coming months. Contraband seized during the course of investigations must be held until court proceedings have been completed.