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   Frightful risk for medical pot users
Home-invasion robbers don't care who's
 growing or using the marijuana.


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By Ralph Montaño and Niesha Gates -- Bee Staff Writers  Published 2:15 a.m. PDT Tuesday, October 15, 2002

A bold, daytime home-invasion robbery targeting a marijuana garden in 
El Dorado County has alarmed law-enforcement officials and highlighted 
risks for growers of medicinal pot.

    Four gunmen dressed as FBI and ATF agents forced their way into a   family's rural Lotus home last week and took 20 plants -- which the   homeowner told authorities were for medicinal purposes -- and about   $300 in cash.    "This is the first one of this magnitude that I'm aware of," said Lt.   Kevin House, public information officer for the El Dorado County   Sheriff's Department.    In Sacramento County, two thefts related to marijuana cultivation have   been reported recently. Last week, three juveniles stole three   marijuana plants from the yard of a Sacramento man, who told police he was   certified to use pot for medicinal purposes.    Last month in North Highlands, five robbers barged into a mobile home   and pistol-whipped a man before stealing about 20 plants that were   being grown illegally, sheriff's investigators said.    Home-invasion robberies occur every year, especially in September and   October, when marijuana is mature and ready for harvest, said Dan   Minter, a Sacramento County sheriff's robbery detective.    "If you grow pot, you are running a risk of getting robbed. It's that   simple," he said.    A U.S. Justice Department report points out the emergence of violence   against marijuana growers. The August report by the department's   National Drug Intelligence Center also noted that home-invasion   robberies in California and Alaska have targeted medical pot growers.    Home-invasion robberies are not tracked in local crime statistics, but   Sacramento County detectives estimate as many as 50 occur each year.   They estimate that about 90 percent of them are drug-related and that   growers without a medical permit are less likely to report the theft,   Minter said.    For members of the American Alliance for Medical Cannabis who grow pot,   robberies are a big concern. Medical marijuana users -- generally   people suffering from symptoms of AIDS, cancer or chronic pain -- are hardly   in any condition to fight off robbers, said National Director Jay   Cavanaugh of West Hills in Southern California.    "It is unfortunate that this medicine costs about $20 to grow and can   get $400 to $500 (an ounce) on the street," he said. "We tell our   members to be very discreet. If not, it is like putting out a welcome   mat for someone to kick in the front door."    The Oct. 7 afternoon break-in at William Nugent's El Dorado County home   has stolen his peace of mind and left his family shaken.    Toting loaded rifles and handguns and dressed in law-enforcement garb   -- which included gun belts, an FBI vest and caps, and a federal Bureau of   Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms bulletproof vest and cap -- the men held   the family at gunpoint while they robbed their home on Sampson Ranch   Road.    "This one guy had a shotgun pointed at me, and I started questioning   him, asking 'Where's your search warrant?' and 'Why didn't you announce   yourself as officers?' " Nugent said. "That just seemed weird to me.   That's when I looked away at my daughter, and the guy clocked me on the   head with a gun."    The robbers' violent behavior, coupled with their attempt to   impersonate law-enforcement officers, took home invasion to a new level, El Dorado   County deputies said.    "We're concerned not only with where this gear came from but also the   way that all of this stuff was used and abused," House said. "It   certainly created the image of premeditation and conspiracy."    Three suspects have been arrested on suspicion of home-invasion   robbery, armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and impersonating a peace   officer, House said. The clothing, ammunition and firearms, as well as   the marijuana plants, were found in a U-Haul truck, one of the getaway   vehicles.    Deputies are analyzing fingerprints found on one of the two getaway   vehicles, which may yield the identity of the fourth suspect.    Brock Daniel Hickey, 22, and James John Hardy, 26, both of Rancho   Cordova, and Robert Lowell Wise, 21, of Citrus Heights were scheduled   for arraignment last week but chose to wait for legal representation   before entering their pleas. All were being held in the El Dorado   County jail. A preliminary hearing is scheduled Monday.    Although authorities are still investigating how the men obtained the   clothing, the ATF bulletproof vest is believed to be federal property   stolen from an agent's car years ago, ATF spokeswoman Marci McKee said.   The FBI is considering federal charges in the case.    Nugent said he didn't advertise the fact that he used marijuana for   medicinal purposes, but his caution hasn't helped him or his family   feel any safer as they try to get on with life.    "My insides are still shaking from it," Nugent said. "We're doing   better, but I think we all need some counseling."    The El Dorado County robbery occurred four years and a day after a Fair   Oaks hom-invasion robbery turned deadly.    On Oct. 6, 1998, 18-year-old Riley Haeling was shot five times as he   used his body to protect a 15-year-old girl from intruders who burst   into her family's Fair Oaks home in search of medical marijuana.   Jennifer Salmon, 15, was shot twice and survived. This month, two men   were convicted of Haeling's murder.    Sacramento sheriff's spokesman Sgt. James Lewis said there is no   evidence indicating that the number of robberies is rising, but he said   medical growers should be aware that they are taking the same risks as   those who grow marijuana without a permit.    "It makes no difference to the robbers if the marijuana is being grown   for medical use or not," Lewis said. "It's all smokes or sells the same   to them."