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Cash Crop: Plane search often helps officers track down marijuana plants

Posted on August 26, 2000

Quincy, Illinois — The shadow from a small, white airplane traces its way through the corn and bean fields of rural Brown County.

Flying just high enough to miss the tops of water towers, the pilot is directed to a location by spotters on the ground. He drops to about 300 feet — and circles.

Those inside squint through the windows in search of their target. Then one of the men spots what they’re looking for: tall green plants, a shade darker than the surrounding vegetation.

Marijuana.

The site is recorded by global positioning, photographed and videotaped. Then the spotters on the ground go in with machetes and cut down the wild cannabis. This is the first of two plots the men on the plane are searching for on a recent August morning.

The flight is part of the Illinois State Police program Operation Cash Crop. The program pays for law enforcement officers, like those in the West Central Illinois Task Force, to find and destroy marijuana crops — both wild and cultivated.

“If we think we can find it on a ground search we won’t (fly). But if we’ve got a lot of area to cover, we’ll fly first,” said Sgt. Glenn Schwartz with the task force.

The first plot was just a few dozen feet from a blacktop road a few miles from Mount Sterling. The second plot was more difficult to spot. It was located on pasture between planted fields. Those in the plane spotted the tell-tale coloring of the marijuana plants almost hidden by trees growing along the field line.

Agents estimated the 20 to 30 clumps of marijuana contained 100 plants each. “It’s probably several thousand plants,” Schwartz said.

Like most these details, authorities learned of the patches of pot from a resident’s tip.

Pilot Bill Deutsch said he flies the agents 15 to 20 times a month. “Planes down south do it constantly. They do these flights probably 60 times a month,” he said.

The agents have practiced so they can readily spot marijuana from the air. They attend a school to learn what to look for.

“It’s a skill. Like anything, once you practice it you get better and better and better,” said Master Sgt. Tim Wooldridge, head of the task force in Quincy.

“You look for patterns” in fields and clearings, Schwartz said. “We’re looking for plants that are out of place.”

Schwartz said growers often use other peoples’ land — anything from state parks to farm fields.

“What we’re looking for is color. Then we look for access — these guys are usually lazy and they don’t want to walk far,” Deutsch said.

Spotters in planes look for plants growing between corn rows or along tree lines. Marijuana grows to 15 feet, towering above corn.

They also look for a water supply, including a creek. “In a dry year, you’ll see people haul water,” Schwartz said. Agents look for evidence of traffic to a remote location. Pathways through fields are more easily seen from the air.

Schwartz said the task force has responded to 10 tips on cultivated marijuana plots this year, 40 percent more than all of last year. Many remain under investigation. An additional 25 or so tips about wild pot also have been called in. Most of the calls are split between Adams and Pike counties, with an increasing number in Brown County.

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