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Police were processing a fourth marijuana-growing operation today in the Malheur River canyon west of Vale.
About 161 law enforcement officers from federal, state, county and city agencies worked to process three sites containing about 4,000 plants Wednesday, said Oregon State Police Lt. Ray Duman.
Investigators also found a fifth site that was harvested last year, he said.
The marijuana plants processed Wednesday ranged from 3- to 9-feet tall. OSP Lt. Jason Bledsoe said a conservative estimate of their value was placed at $2.5 million to $3.75 million.
Four Hispanic men and a 17-year-old Hispanic boy are in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service today, said Lt. Aaron M. Hartman of the Malheur County Sheriff's Office. After interviewing the five, officers determined they have been living in the country illegally, he said.
National Guard and BLM helicopters are being used to transport some of the officers to the remote sites and to haul the plants out of the hills. An incident command center has been established just off Highway 20 at Milepost 202, 47 miles west of Vale.
The area will be flown again today in search of other possible grow sites, Hartman said.
The investigation began last spring when area ranchers reported suspicious activity to the Malheur County Sheriff's Office and the BLM, Hartman said. The five suspects apparently were living in tents at the sites, he said. Three firearms were found Wednesday, he said.
Duman said the grows are similar to the three operations discovered in Baker County during the past year. In all cases, irrigation tubing was used to pipe spring water to the plants, which were placed among the trees and sagebrush growing in the draws, he said.
The Baker County investigations included two large marijuana gardens discovered in the Snake River canyon area near Huntington last fall. Another similar operation was found last month near Rye Valley. Officers pulled thousands of marijuana plants valued at millions of dollars from those sites.
Six Hispanic men were arrested in connection with last fall's investigation in Baker County. Five pleaded guilty to manufacturing marijuana and were placed on probation and departed to Mexico. The sixth, Murilio Sanchez, 45, of Murieta, Calif., was sentenced July 15 to 40 months in prison for his role in the marijuana-growing operations.