Stacking marijuana plants

Authorities stack marijuana plants in a clearing so they can be airlifted away as part of a law enforcement sting operation on illegal growers in the Sierra Nevada. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times / August 3, 2012)

In all, two aircraft, 43 agents, seven scientists and land managers, and eight volunteers would take part in the joint operation — at a cost of $35,000 to $40,000.

Two young men in camouflage are pulled out of a brush-covered tent. A Glock pistol is found in one of their sleeping bags, but neither man tried to grab it. They are the fieldworkers.

Game wardens trudge down the canyon with their guns drawn. They pass another tent and kitchen area overflowing with trash. Strung up on sticks is some type of salted game meats.

About 50 yards down in the canyon, they find 450 brilliant green marijuana plants all but glowing amid the dry summer brush. Many more stalks have already been harvested.

The scene is an ecological mess. Cottonwood trees and willows have been cut down to let in sunlight. Bags of fertilizer and trays of rat poison are strewn about. A dead hawk lies on one footpath. A coyote carcass is rotting up the hill.

A volunteer clean-up crew starts pulling up the hoses and rubbish. A helicopter comes with a net to lift the marijuana out. It takes two more flights to get the trash out.

Word comes on the radio that no one at the Bakersfield houses was arrested in relation to the grows. Gomez and Barrazarivas were gone.

The two men arrested in the woods are Cruz Soria, 27, of Bakersfield, and Mairo Correa-Garcia, an 18-year-old illegal immigrant from Michoacan.

Correa-Garcia's lawyer, Dale Blickenstaff, said later that the young man told him he had been in the United States for a year and was working in Washington state, then came to Bakersfield when he heard there were better opportunities.

He was recruited to work for $100 a day — great pay for farm labor — and had been up on the grow site for a month.

Soria is now awaiting trial. Correa-Garcia pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in federal prison.

Neither one told investigators whom they were working for. They said they didn't know.