18 people arrested, drugs seized after panga boat spotted on North Coast

aconejo@thetribunenews.comOctober 16, 2013 

The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office arrested 18 people and seized 144 bales of marijuana estimated to be worth $2.7 million on Wednesday morning following a large drug-enforcement operation involving a motor home, two vans, a car and a panga boat.

The operation began around 1 a.m. while deputies were on a routine patrol for panga boats near San Simeon along Highway 1.

Panga boats have become an increasing problem in San Luis Obispo County with drugs, mostly from Mexico, delivered under the cloak of night and picked up to be distributed to other areas of the state or as far away as the Midwest.

On Wednesday morning, deputies saw a large motor home, two cargo vans and another vehicle in the area, and they initiated a traffic stop on the motor home and car near the junction of Highway 46 and Highway 101.

Deputies also stopped the two vans, which led to a short pursuit when one driver fled. The pursuit ended when the van turned off Highway 46 a few miles east of Highway 1 and plunged down a steep embankment. One person in the van was hurt, sheriff’s spokesman Tony Cipolla said.

A 35-foot panga boat believed to be part of the operation was found in the San Simeon area with four bales of marijuana still on the boat.

The 18 people arrested are in custody on charges of transportation of marijuana for sale, possession of marijuana for sale, and conspiracy, Cipolla said.

All of the people arrested were in the vehicles, including 10 passengers in one van. It was not clear Wednesday whether any of the people had been on the boat.

“People on panga boats are looking for any kind of rural coastline they can find, and we have a lot of that in this county,” Cipolla said. “They look for nooks and crannies where they can offload marijuana. We are trying to hamper them at every turn and make it not suitable for them to land here.”

Booking information for all 18 people arrested was not available Wednesday, but some of the people arrested came from Pomona, Azusa and Fontana. The drugs likely came from Mexico, Cipolla said.

In all, 3,465 pounds of marijuana and 5 grams of methamphetamine were seized.

The patrol for panga boats is being funded by a federal grant known as Operation Stonegarden.

It is one of three operations in the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Grant Program designed to increase coordination among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies and to help offset costs by local agencies.

The Sheriff’s Office received a $50,000 grant in October 2012 to help pay for overtime costs needed for the boat patrols. That grant expires this month.

A separate grant, worth $300,000 has been tentatively approved because of the increased activity in San Luis Obispo County, Cipolla said.

The Sheriff’s Office expected that money in mid-November but it may be delayed because of the government shutdown.

That money will be used for overtime costs and new equipment such as night vision goggles and other surveillance equipment.

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.

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