Local, regional and state anti-drug officers worked until after darkness fell Thursday night cutting thousands of marijuana plants that had been found growing deep in a hollow off Warrensburg Road in western Greene County that afternoon.
One suspect was arrested by Third Judicial District Drug Task Force agents and county deputies at the scene on Thursday afternoon, but three others remained at large today.
Greene County Sheriff Steve Burns said this morning that officers had largely completed the task of hauling out the marijuana by about 11:30 p.m. Thursday.
"We sent some more officers back down there at daylight today, and they found a few plants that had been dropped in the dark last night," the sheriff said.
Burns said the marijuana might be burned later today, weather permitting.
He said that sheriff's deputies were continuing to search for three male suspects who fled when agents of the Third Judicial District Drug Task Force (DTF) approached the hidden marijuana patch about a mile off Warrensburg Road during the afternoon.
"A lot of times when something like this happens, they (the suspects) leave the area," the sheriff said.
The Third Judicial District Drug Task Force includes law enforcement agents and district attorney's officers from Greene, Hawkins, Hancock and Hamblen counties.
Officers confiscated a .22-cal. semiautomatic rifle and an "AK-47-type" assault rifle that was abandoned by the fleeing suspects in the patch, the sheriff said.
"We don't have any reason to believe that they (the suspects who fled) are still armed," the sheriff said Thursday night.
Burns had said about 3:15 p.m. that DTF agents had been watching the patch for several days and had attempted to arrest four suspects near the field on Thursday afternoon.
Members of the Greeneville-Greene County Special Response Team (specially trained and equipped officers) had been summoned to join the search for the suspects, the sheriff stated.
In addition, Burns said, the Tennessee Highway Patrol's helicopter had been called to the scene to help assess and deal with the huge marijuana patch.
According to a press release issued Thursday night by the Tennessee Department of Safety, the Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter pilot called in to assist the DTF helped verify the field and locate the armed suspect who was then arrested.
The Department of Safety release noted that a farmer had discovered the plants and notified authorities.
The marijuana field, according to the news release, is three miles from the Cocke County border. On Monday a THP helicopter pilot located a large marijuana patch near Newport in Cocke County.
"This [the Greene County field raided Thursday] is one of the largest marijuana fields I've ever seen," the release quoted THP Lieutenant Terry Botts, who has served as a Special Operations pilot since 1990 and has served for 30 years with the Highway Patrol.
The Department of Safety release descibed the marijuana field as "50 to 75 yards wide and between 600 to 700 yards long, with an estimated eight to twelve thousand plants."
The plants ranged in height from 5 to 14 feet and had an estimated street value of approximately one million dollars, according to the Department of Safety release.
"I don't really believe it's actually quite that big," Sheriff Burns said Thursday night during an interview by cellular telephone while hauling freshly-cut marijuana out of the rugged terrain aboard an all-terrain vehicle.
Sheriff Estimates 8,000 Plants
This morning, the sheriff said he estimated that the patch contained about 8,000 plants, many of which were "well-budded." He noted that marijuana buds are highly prized by users of the illegal drug.
Burns said Thursday night that a member of the Governor's Marijuana Eradication Task Force who was helping cut the plants estimated that the Greene County discovery likely would be one of the largest marijuana seizures in the state this year.
Another member of the Marijuana Eradication Task Force, who spoke with Greeneville Sun photographer Phil Gentry at the scene on condition of anonymity, said he believed the Greene County patch was larger than the one found in Cocke County on Monday.
State authorities had estimated in a news release that the Cocke County marijuana patch contained "more than 4,500 plants."
By contrast, the state marijuana task force member who spoke with Gentry estimated that the Greene County patch could contain as many as 12,000 marijuana plants.
Officers Remove Plants
On Thursday evening, Gentry said by cellular telephone from the scene, agents of the DTF and the Governor's Task Force on Marijuana Eradication and sheriff's deputies were busy cutting the marijuana plants and dragging them manually up a steep slope from a hollow in which most were growing.
After being hauled up the steep slope, the plants were tied in bundles and placed on four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles to be hauled out of the woods to a point where a larger all-terrain vehicle operated by Sheriff Burns could pick them up and haul them out to a waiting truck.
The sheriff said the illegal plants were then transferred to a county dump-truck to be hauled to a secure storage facility until they can be destroyed.
A Sort Of 'Camp'
During a telephone interview from the scene Thursday night, Burns described as a sort of "camp" the scene where the marijuana had been grown.
He said he believed the plants had been transplanted into the field in late April or early May and had been carefully tended since that time.
He said those who had been tending the plants had taken up residence in an abandoned log structure on the property.
"This is the first place I've seen in a long time where they had food, water, clothing and a means of cooking all in place," the sheriff said.
Burns, who was the first director of the Third Judicial District Drug Task Force in the 1980s, said that since his days with the DTF he personally had not seen a marijuana patch as large as the one found Thursday.
Photographer Gentry, speaking from the scene on Thursday night, said the plants appeared to have been "planted in rows sort of like corn."
Burns said that the suspects apparently had recently begun harvesting marijuana from the huge patch.
"We think we found another area where they had already harvested some plants," the sheriff said.