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Updated: Thursday, 30 Aug 2012, 4:11 PM CDT
Published : Wednesday, 29 Aug 2012, 11:45 AM CDT
OCONTO - UPDATE: On Thursday, the U.S. Forest Service released a revised count of the number of marijuana plants taken. The agency now says 8,385 plants were eradicated at the grow site. Our original report is below:
Law enforcement officials have uncovered what they're calling a large scale marijuana growing operation in Oconto County.
Investigators said Wednesday hundreds of agents are uncovering thousands of pot plants in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
"This was a very successful mission. This mission resulted in us having seven suspects in custody," said Mary King with the U.S. Forest Service.
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, authorities said law enforcement officials are removing the plants from grow sites.
Those grow sites are located along the south branch of the Oconto River, near Highway 64 and County T.
Squad cars were on the ground, as helicopters flew through the air.
Authorities said the investigation that sparked this marijuana raid began in June after a fisherman tipped them off.
"Preliminary count right now that we just got a short time ago was approximately 15,000 plants. The street value of that would be approximately $15 million," said Ed Wall with the Wisconsin Dept. of Criminal Investigation.
Officials say they've discovered dozens of grow sites along the Oconto River in the towns of Doty and Mountain.
Around 200 law enforcement officers are processing the area which authorities say contains marijuana plants in very good condition.
"They were just about ready in fact some of it had already been harvested and was getting ready for sale," said Wall.
A White Lake resident showed us one of the staging areas officials had set up.
You could see military helicopters taking off and landing at the site.
"This is so remote you can't get in with vehicles, so they're slinging out the marijuana. Every plant's got to be counted, cut down, and then destroyed. Plus we had other helicopters there that were providing supplies to law enforcement on the ground," Wall said.
"Ever since Saturday, we had just a flood of law enforcement," said Mike Richling.
Richling, a lifelong resident of the area, owns a bar in the town of Doty.
"It was pretty overwhelming the way they come in. So, there's a lot of people in a hurry - with machine guns and the whole works. So they're very serious when they come here," said Richling.
According to a criminal complaint, Maria Blanca Garcia, Miguel Sanchez-Garcia, Pedro Infante-Ramirez, Guillermo Chavez-Carrion, Jose Alfredo Sierra-Aguilar and Juan Carlos Cervantes Contreras have been arrested and charged.
Officials redacted a seventh person's name in the copy of the complaint provided to reporters.
Those in custody are charged in federal court with conspiracy to manufacture and possess marijuana with the intent to deliver.
Investigators said they appear to have connections to Mexico.
According to authorities, Wisconsin has seen large scale grows, like this one in Clam Lake, every year since 2008, and they're seeing more and more of them.
"The Chequamegon is a very attractive place for growers to go to because it's so remote, and so huge, there's very readily available water," Wall said.
Investigators are still trying to find out how long marijuana was being grown in the area.
Authorities stress it is important for the public to report any suspicious growing operations or unusual campsites to the nearest law enforcement agency.
The suspects in the case made their initial appearances Monday in federal court in Green Bay. They are due back in court Thursday morning.
This drug bust comes only about a month after a comparable operation was uncovered in Marinette County.
More than 13,000 marijuana plants with a street value of more than $13 million were confiscated.
Investigators called it a family operation, with at least seven suspects involved.