One by one, they entered the courtroom — the suspects arrested in Clark County’s largest drug bust in recent memory. The first 13 who appeared were women, followed by dozens of men.
In all, 49 drug suspects faced a judge Friday.
The huge number caused headaches for the Clark County Courthouse. The court had to open a special morning docket to get through all the cases. A second docket in the afternoon was added to finish them up.
The unusually long process started at 9 a.m. and concluded at 3:15 p.m., with a lunch break in between. Two Superior Court judges, Barbara Johnson and Dan Stahnke, were delegated to tackle the huge dockets. More than 35 defense lawyers were pooled to represent the indigent defendants. Three interpreters were on hand.
The massive court process came a day after Operation Gang Green, an investigation by the Clark-Skamania Drug Task Force that netted about 6,800 marijuana plants following raids on 56 Clark County locations. The operation involved about 300 police officers.
$50,000 bail for most
After the defendants were brought over from the jail in groups, each appeared briefly to set a trial and allow a judge to assign bail. Bail was ordered at $50,000 for most of the defendants and an arraignment date of Oct. 28.
Most people were appearing on suspicion of manufacturing marijuana or possession with intent to deliver, both felonies.
They were of all ages, ranging from 19 to 62. In some cases, a husband and wife and grown child were arrested. Some had children at home; one suspect told Judge Johnson through an interpreter that she had five children.
Prosecutors said the drug raid was the end of a 2 1/2 -year investigation that “identified a total of 82 grow residences,” 55 of which were suspected to be active, according to a probable cause affidavit filed with the court. The affidavit also said that more than 200 suspects were involved in the manufacturing organization “in various levels of involvement.”
The drug cartel was instrumental in the shipment of 47 pounds sent to Wyoming, 54 pounds to Portland and 38 pounds to Nebraska, the affidavit said.
Senior Deputy Prosecutor Tonya Rulli on Friday said prosecutors were still sorting out which of the 49 arrestees were the ringleaders.
“The state is going to try to figure out the hierarchy of the players,” Rulli said. “At this point, we don’t know.”
It’s also unclear how the prosecution will proceed — including whether defendants will be tried federally or locally. Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik said he will be meeting with federal prosecutors in the coming weeks to decide.
It appeared the defendants will be tried separately or in smaller groups, defense attorneys said.
Not long-term residents
Rulli said few defendants have long-standing ties to Clark County and that most originate from Seattle, Honolulu or California. The homes that were rented or purchased throughout the county were used as warehouses for their growing operations. Most homes had between 100 and 300 plants, she said.
As for the defendants, Rulli said: “They are pretty transient. Most of the places were not homes, but crash pads. … Most of them do not have legitimate jobs.”
Rulli said one year of the drug operation netted $10 million. Yet many of the defendants said they were unemployed and indigent and needed the court to appoint a lawyer.
“Do you have any money in your bank account?” Judge Stahnke asked each defendant before he decided the bail amount. Many said no.
Deputy Prosecutor Mike Dodds explained that for at least some of the defendants, the alleged drug money was spent on their living expenses.
One of the 49 defendants was released after Stahnke determined that “probable cause,” or evidence that a crime could have occurred, was not established.
The next time all the defendants will be in court together is Oct. 28, when a judge has set up a special docket for arraignments. That’s when the prosecution formally will bring charges against defendants and a judge will set trial dates.
Laura McVicker: www.twitter.com/col_courts; www.facebook.com; email@example.com; 360-735-4516.