More than 300 marijuana plants seized from Merced home

The Merced County Sheriff’s Department seized more than 300 marijuana plants Wednesday and nearly 100 pounds of trimmed buds from a Merced home that deputies described as a “commercial operation.”

Deputy Ray Framstad said the residents paid someone to bypass electrical wiring, which allowed the growers to steal more than $20,000 in electricity from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. over the last six months.

Sheriff’s detectives raided the home in the 2100 block of West Highway 140 early Wednesday and found the house’s four-car garage had been converted into a growing operation.

“This is one of those residential-neighborhood grows that are prime targets for home-invasion robberies,” Framstad said. “They create a real danger for the safety of the community.”

Deputies seized 305 plants and about 95 pounds of marijuana buds with a combined estimated street value of about $735,000. Investigators said it was at least the second grow cycle at the home, bringing the total estimated value of the operation to more than $1.4 million, the Sheriff’s Department said.

Detectives will seek criminal cultivation and utility theft charges against two residents, 46-year-old Florentino Gutierrez and 38-year-old Maria Villfan, both of Delhi. Deputies described them as a married couple. Efforts to reach them Wednesday by telephone were unsuccessful.

Investigators do not believe the growers were connected to any larger trafficking operations such as cartels or street gangs, but allege they were selling marijuana commercially.

Framstad said Child Protective Services would be asked to review the case as a precaution because there was a teenage girl living at the home. However, he said the marijuana was secured behind locked gates and did not appear easily accessible. The child was not removed from the home, the Sheriff’s Department confirmed.

Gutierrez had a medical marijuana recommendation for up to 99 plants, but in Merced County residents are only allowed a maximum of 12 plants per parcel of land.

“But, even with the 99 plants, this grow was still well above that number,” Framstad said.

Framstad said Wednesday’s effort was part of the county zero-tolerance stance on large-scale marijuana grows. The county passed its medical marijuana ordinance last year allowing residents 12 plants per parcel and issued dozens of warnings to residents that, beginning in 2014, deputies would eliminate all grows above the limit.