This is the first of two parts — the second part appears Thursday.
At 7:45 a.m., on the morning of Sept. 9, 2009, a loud alarm rang through the trees that ringed the small farm at 7630 Nixon Rd.
Up the driveway, past a white quonset hut and inside a two-storey farmhouse, 61-year-old Darryl Francis Ness looked at a video screen. This wasn't the first time the alarm for the property's front gate had been triggered. Over the five-and-a-half months Ness had lived in the farmhouse, a bear, coyotes and birds had all set the alarm ringing.
But when Ness looked at the monitor today, he didn't see an animal. Instead, he watched as two men clad in black and wearing black balaclavas used bolt cutters to breach the gate.
He watched and he waited. After one minute, maybe two, the phone beside the monitor rang.
The man on the other end of the line asked Ness what was wrong. Ness explained the situation and hung up. He never called police. If he had, it wouldn't have helped.
SMELL FIRST ALERTED POLICE
Last week, more than two years after the RCMP's Emergency Response Team raided the Nixon Road property, Ness sat in a Chilliwack courtroom trying to explain why he never dialed 911; how he had come to live rent-free on the property; and how he could not have smelled the stench emanating from that quonset hut, beneath which Mounties found the largest, most sophisticated grow operation in Chilliwack history.
AMAZED AT THE COMPLEXITY OF THE GROW OPERATION
Five days before the million-dollar grow operation was raided, RCMP Const. Chad Mufford parked his police cruiser at the bottom of Nixon Road and walked up the gravel surface. He walked until he reached a point where power lines disappear into the trees and head toward the property. There, he recorded a faint scent of marijuana. Four days later he returned, again walked the road and again detected a strong odour of pot.
A search warrant was obtained that day and the next morning, police stormed the property. They had no idea what they would encounter.
"When we executed the search warrant, we didn't know we would find 10,000 marijuana plants in an underground bunker," Mufford told the court Thursday.
But they did.
RCMP Cpl. Kurt Bosnell, testifying as an expert witness for the Crown, told the court that of the more than 100 grow operations he had investigated, "This one's the most complex one I've ever come across."
Inside that quonset hut, a lockable door led to a small room, inside of which a scissor lift allowed one to descend below ground level.
Enclosed within the "purpose-built bunker," 378 430-watt hydroponic lights illuminated a field of between 10,000 and 11,000 pot plants.
The plants had a week or two until they were ready to be harvested. At that point, they would produce about 312 pounds of fresh marijuana, which could be sold for between $1,000 and $2,500 a pound. The latter number is the typical export price of pot, Bosnell told the court.
Each harvest, then, could produce between $312,000 and $780,000 of revenue. With the plants taking between six and eight weeks to grow, the operation could produce six harvests a year, for annual revenue of between $3 million and $5 million a year.
Crown counsel Michael LeDressay later told the court that the grow-op had likely been in operation since 2003.
Bosnell said the lights and the wiring would have been installed by a professional; the whole operation was powered by a primary hydro bypassed that siphoned electricity directly from a nearby powerline and was routed through several BC Hydro-style transformers. Air circulated within the light units to cool them and extend their lives. Each of the 378 units would have cost around $250.
NESS WAS 'VERY POLITE AND QUIET'
Only one person — Ness — was on the property when Mounties raided it on that September morning.
When Mufford spoke to the portly pensioner, he said there was nothing threatening about a man he described as "very polite and quiet."
Ness told Mufford about his recent hernia operation and about medication inside the house, some of which was for his dog.
"He wasn't an intimidating, tattooed man," he told the court. "There were some things that I don't think he wanted to answer, but he was nice."
But however nice he may have been, Ness had just been found at a multi-million industrial-scale drug operation. He was arrested and, later, charged with possession of marijuana for the purpose of trafficking, and production of a controlled substance. Last week, he stood trial for his alleged crimes.
- The second half of this two-part story will appear Thursday in theprovince.com.
For more news, go to Chilliwack Times.com.