A quiet McKinleyville neighborhood was jolted last Sunday night by the echo of three gunshots and the sound of breaking glass, as three suspects in an alleged home invasion robbery frantically drove away from a marijuana grow house.
Home-invasion robberies at houses with pot gardens occur with disconcerting regularity in Humboldt County, law enforcement officials say. And the potential for violence in any robbery is high. Within the past six months, at least three people have been shot during suspected grow house robberies in Humboldt County.
”I can’t think of a home invasion robbery in the last two years in Humboldt County that hasn’t had a drug connection to it,” said Eureka Police Chief Garr Nielsen. In every case, “it’s almost exclusively marijuana.”
The Sunday incident
Investigators have been slow to release information about the alleged home invasion robbery that occurred in McKinleyville on April 12.
However, three search warrant affidavits filed at the Humboldt County Superior Court provide some details surrounding the incident.
According to the affidavits, at around 12:30 p.m. at a Harden Drive residence in McKinleyville, three residents — Richard, Brandon and James Barnett — sat watching TV when they heard a knock at the door.
Brandon Barnett answered, and three black male adults pushed their way into the room, demanding, “Where’s the stuff?”
One of the men stood guard near the Barnetts while the other two walked into the back of the house and returned with two bags, each filled with at least one pound of marijuana.
After grabbing the drugs, the three alleged robbers left the house together.
According to an affidavit, seconds after the suspected robbers walked out, Richard Barnett ran for the door, grabbing a .357-caliber pistol off the kitchen table as he went.
When Richard Barnett stepped outside, the affidavit says, he saw two men seated in a car, while a third stood in the driveway struggling to open the car door.
Richard Barnett told police he yelled at the men to stop, warning them he had a gun, but the man slipped into the car and the driver hit the gas.
Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Brenda Godsey said Richard Barnett then fired his gun into the windshield as the driver frantically backed out of the driveway, knocking over a portable basketball hoop as they sped away.
Police soon received reports of gunshots fired, and traveled to the Harden Street residence, where they found the Barnetts and interviewed them.
After conducting the search warrant at the Barnetts’ residence, police found 23 firearms — including handguns, rifles and shotguns — in plain view and hidden in rooms throughout the house.
Within a short time that night, a blue Daewoo with three bullet holes in its hood and windshield, and blood spattered across the front passenger seat, was discovered abandoned in the parking lot of Mad River Community Hospital by officers in Arcata.
Although the Sheriff’s Office has not released the names of any suspects involved in the incident, the affidavit reports investigators learned 24-year-old Mario DeAngelo Alexander had been admitted to the hospital for two gunshot wounds in his upper chest and left hand.
Investigating officer Sgt. Wayne Hanson attempted to speak with Alexander, but he could only say he did not know why he was shot, and Hanson ceased his questions, allowing Alexander to be treated, according to the affidavit.
Hanson said on Friday that Alexander was not in police custody, and remained in treatment as the investigation into the alleged home invasion robbery continues.
Casing the grows
Richard Barnett told an investigating officer that the day before the alleged robbery, a black male who he did not recognize visited his residence, announcing he was from the Oakland Cannabis Club and asking to see his marijuana garden.
According to information in the search warrant affidavit, the two men discussed a price for the pot, but the unknown male suddenly said he didn’t want it, and left the house.
A company called Oakland Cannabis Club does exist; however, a spokesman for the club said it is not a dispensary, but an online medical marijuana directory, and its staff is not involved with trade in medical marijuana.
According to law enforcement officials, potential grow house robbers typically spend some amount of time gathering intelligence on their target before breaking in.
Arcata Police Sgt. Todd Dokweiler, who has investigated numerous grow-house robberies in Humboldt County, said there are a number of ways someone in search of a potential target can find information about grow-house locations. And the robberies, he said, are “usually not random.”
In one alleged grow house robbery in Arcata that occurred in early April, Dokweiler said one of five teenage robbery suspects has been accused of going door-to-door asking a “bogus question” in search of a grow house.
”This was a unique case in that it appears they were randomly casing houses looking for grows,” Dokweiler said.
Dokweiler said another common way grow houses are identified by potential robbers occurs when the grower willingly invites people into their house during a party or some other social event.
Usually, grow houses are robbed by people from outside Humboldt County, Dokweiler said.
Information about Humboldt County grow houses can be a valuable commodity for criminals tempted by quick and easy cash, and the location of grow houses is often spread inside jails and prisons, said Eureka Police Lt. Murl Harpham.
Humboldt County Sheriff Gary Philp said although grow-house robberies are rarely sophisticated operations, they usually do employ some amount of intelligence gathering.
”Some (suspects) are from the area,” Philp said, “but others have been people from out of the area who gathered information from people they knew up here.”
Crimes of a victim
Many Humboldt County officials in law enforcement say they realize only a small fraction of grow-house robberies are ever reported.
”We know there are many that go unreported,” Mendosa said. “The people who are victims of the violent acts are themselves committing crimes.”
Dokweiler is one of many police officers who say the vast majority of grow-house robberies are never reported. The robberies that are reported, Dokweiler said, are done so usually only after a person is seriously injured or gunshots are fired, which draws attention to the scene.
Officials in law enforcement say every grow-house robbery is different, but in many cases, the grower may not face any charges.
Nielsen said, “Growing is certainly not a violent crime like a robbery is. From my perspective, that’s what takes priority — but that’s not to say we would disregard the fact someone has an illegal grow.”
Mendosa too said he would not be willing to automatically offer immunity for growers who have been robbed.
”I can think of lots of situations when we may decide that it’s a prosecutable case for the grower,” Mendosa said. But, he continued, in most instances, “the marijuana grow portion of the case was a minimum issue.”
In Humboldt County, grow houses are plentiful and the growers are composed of a diverse spectrum of lifestyles. But in every one of their gardens are plants that have proven to be an exceptionally attractive asset for thieves.
Nielsen, Philp and Mendosa all agree, the best way for a grower to limit their likelihood of being robbed is to just grow less.
”We are not looking at preventing people from having (gardens), just reducing the amount being grown,” Philp said. “Three pounds is very attractive — a couple ounces, people are probably not going to take the effort.”
Growing less, however, is difficult for some.
Nielsen said growing small amounts may be difficult for any Proposition 215 collective growing operation. Harpham added that many growers who adhere to the state-mandated six mature plant limit cannot harvest enough to meet their medical needs.
For Philp, the biggest concern is that those who must grow marijuana can do it safely.
”If you’re growing, and you’ve got a fairly significant amount, you’re at risk,” Philp said. “All it takes is somebody telling the right person who passes it on. The next thing you know, you’ve got somebody in your house.”