The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, through the beginning of this week, has confiscated what it calculates is more than $665 million worth of marijuana and both cannabis-derived and marijuana-related products throughout San Bernardino County since August 2021.
Sheriff Shannon Dicus, who was appointed to succeed former Sheriff John McMahon, dubbed that effort Operation Hammer Strike. That marijuana eradication effort was a continuation of a similar stepped-up campaign targeting illicit marijuana cultivation enterprises that McMahon began in January 2021. The board of supervisors as a last-minute augmentation to the county’s 2021-22 budget appropriated in June 2021 an added $4 million for code enforcement throughout the county, the lion’s share of which has been used to cover the cost of Operation Hammer Strike.
Both McMahon and now Dicus have earned kudos from many for undertaking the illicit marijuana cultivation eradication effort. The vast majority of marijuana being grown in unlicensed and unpermitted settings in San Bernardino County occurs in the desert, although functioning beneath the radar is a good share of such enterprises in the mountains as well as within many unremarked and cleverly concealed venues in urban areas.
Oftentimes, outdoor crops are being grown on property in remote desert areas unbeknownst to the property owners. In other cases, property owners are directly involved with those operating, or have some level of knowledge about, the facilities. In some cases, the cultivators have gone to elaborate and dangerous lengths to protect their crops from poaching or interference, including arming themselves and those overseeing the crops, booby-trapping the periphery of the cropland or the property involved and intimidating adjoining or nearby property owners. It is not uncommon for growers to utilize pesticides during the growing process, which when used unregulated, injudiciously or indiscriminately can represent an environmental hazard. Growers are also known to pirate utilities to sustain their illicit operations, including diverting water and stealing electricity.
Desert residents whose property borders or is proximate to these operations have been placed into legally hazardous circumstances by which they have been in danger of or even on occasion subject to unjustifiable arrest. Many are made uncomfortable by having such neighbors. Some have had unfavorable and physical interactions with the illicit farmers.
For many reasons, McMahon and Dicus have been lauded for Operation Hammer Strike and its predecessor program. Nevertheless, there has been a downside to the effort as well as shortcomings in its execution.
On occasion, innocent individuals who have no connection to illicit marijuana activity have found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and were subject to the application of the sheriff’s department’s authority and forceful presence when they were wrongfully assumed to be an element of the cultivation activity the sheriff’s department was targeting.
Operation Hammer Strike has been so energetic and successful that the department’s ability to examine, evaluate, analyze, log, catalog, differentiate between, warehouse let alone keep track of the contraband it has seized has been outrun by the sheer volume of what has come into its possession. That marijuana thereafter exists as criminal evidence, and the confusion over its custody and chain of possession represents a threat to the integrity of the operations and the criminal cases generated therefrom. It has also sparked questions as to the disposition of the marijuana, which in some cases can be quite valuable, after it is seized and whether elements within the department or individuals were taking possession of a portion of it and redirecting it to the marketplace or otherwise utilizing it to profit themselves or others.
Strong, indeed overwhelming evidence has surfaced to indicate that Operation Hammer Strike, while crippling a certain class or level of would-be marijuana entrepreneurs, in particular ones who are not sophisticated enough to insulate themselves politically, has simultaneously advanced the fortunes of another type or level of those engaging in marijuana capitalism, those being the ones willing to distribute “political grease,” i.e., money, payoffs, graft, bribes to McMahon’s and Dicus’s political associates.
In particular, former San Bernardino County Supervisor Bill Postmus, who has set up or has associated himself with a series of political money laundering operations, has gone to work for a number of commercial marijuana/cannabis operations. By arranging for the delivery of what are essentially bribes in the form of political donations or other monetary support to certain politicians in the county, Postmus has obtained licensing and operating approval for a select group of cannabis/marijuana-related commercial concerns in the county. The money generated from those operations, which have collectively come to be known as the Postmus Cartel, is then spread around to a bevy of well-placed county politicians using the money laundering means at Postmus’s disposal, including but not limited to Mountain States Consulting Group, the Inland Empire political action committee, the Conservatives for a Republican Majority political action committee and the Citizens Against Wasteful Spending political action committee.
Money has been passed along in this way to a multitude of elected decision-makers, including Assemblyman Thurston “Smitty” Smith, Fourth District San Bernardino County Supervisor Curt Hagman, Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe, First District Supervisor Paul Cook, San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia, San Bernardino Third Ward Councilman Juan Figueroa, former Adelanto Mayor Rich Kerr, former Adelanto Councilman John Woodard, Adelanto Mayor Gabriel Reyes, Hesperia Mayor/Councilman Bill Holland, Hesperia Councilwoman Rebekah Swanson and former Hesperia Councilman Jeremiah Brosowske, among others. In return, the cities of San Bernardino, Adelanto and Hesperia joined with Needles in permitting marijuana-related commercial sales and activity of one sort or another to take place in their cities. Smith, from his perch in Sacramento, and Hagman, Rowe and Cook, from their positions of authority in San Bernardino, have used their bully pulpits to rail against illicit marijuana cultivation operations. Hagman, Rowe and Cook freed up money to be utilized in Operation Hammer Strike, which had the effect of substantially decreasing the supply of marijuana and pushing up the value of the marijuana in the possession of the Postmus Cartel. Despite investigators with the sheriff’s department’s intelligence unit and detectives attached to the sheriff’s department’s executive command having accumulated specific information and documentation relating to marijuana cartel money Postmus is laundering and then filtering to Hagman, Rowe, Cook, Smith and other San Bernardino County political figures, the department has done nothing to tamp down on any of the elements of the Postmus Cartel or act to interdict Postmus’s political money laundering activity. In the aftermath of the sheriff’s department’s Operation Hammer Strike, which has boosted the profitability of the Postmus Cartel, Hagman, Rowe, Cook and Smith have endorsed Dicus in his run to remain as sheriff in this year’s election.
Starting last November, the sheriff’s department sought to couple action against a national armored car company that ferried sales proceeds from permitted marijuana dispensaries operating in the county with its Operation Hammer Strike activity. On November 16, 2021 and again on December 9, 2021 and then on January 6, 2022, deputies stopped a vehicle used to transport money operated by Empyreal Logistics. Using tactics which the U.S. Attorney’s Office would subsequently find to be highly questionable, the deputies sought to disable the armored cars’ videotaping and audio-recording devices before seizing and tallying on the spot the money those vehicles carried.
The sheriff’s department sought to partner with the federal government in seizing the money under the U.S. Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program relating to civil forfeitures, assuming that the FBI, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and U.S. Attorney’s Office would go along with the seizures based on the federal government’s stricter stance with regard to marijuana, than is provided in current California law, by which the substance is legally sold for both medicinal and intoxicative purposes. Under federal law, marijuana is yet classified as a Schedule I illegal and controlled narcotic.
The deputies, while succeeding in thwarting the armored cars’ video surveillance system, failed to disconnect the vehicle’s audio recorder. What was captured on the audio-recording device of the vehicle that was stopped on November 16 was proof that the sheriff’s personnel had been informed by means of real time communication with an Empyreal Logistics corporate officer that the company was transporting money for companies licensed by the State of California to sell marijuana together with those companies’ state licensure and business permit numbers and identifiers, and that there was global position data for the vehicle that would allow the deputies to verify the legitimacy of the operation. The audio recording devices in the armored vehicles also captured statements by sheriff’s deputies indicating that the operation targeting the armored cars was not intended to prevent the sale or distribution of marijuana but rather to bring in revenue to the department.
When Empyreal Logistics went to court to get the $1,062,176.36 that had been seized by the sheriff’s department, Dicus, ill-advisedly, before it was disclosed that Empyreal Logistics had recordings of the compromising statements of the department’s deputies, responded in court papers that Empyreal Logistics was engaged in “a blatant attempt to interfere with ongoing local criminal investigations.”
Also named in the Empyreal Logistics suit seeking the return of the seized money were several federal officials and entities, including the U.S. Department of Justice; Attorney General Merrick Garland; the FBI; FBI Director Christopher Wray; Kristi Koons Johnson, the special agent in charge of the Los Angeles Office of the FBI; and Anne Milgram, the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency. When FBI agents and members of the U.S. Attorney’s Office were confronted with the statements of Dicus’s deputies, revealing to the world that their motives were mercenary ones relating to making a monetary haul for themselves and the sheriff’s department, Dicus’s credibility with the U.S. Attorney’s Office plummeted, with one member of the U.S. Attorney’s office characterizing what the sheriff’s department had engaged in as a “rogue” operation. The federal defendants at that point settled the portion of suit pertaining to them, indicating they were amenable to having the money returned to Empyreal Logistics. That settlement did not extend to the sheriff’s department, which left Dicus and San Bernardino County in the humiliating position of being left on their own and having to walk back the now provably false assertions the department and Dicus had made in justifying the seizures, while agreeing to go along with the money taken from Empyreal Logistics being returned.
“The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and executives from Empyreal Enterprises, LLC recently engaged in meaningful conversations regarding the circumstances of traffic stops that led to Empyreal’s recent litigation,” the sheriff’s department stated publicly on May 6, further indicating Dicus and his department’s commanders were prepared to “acknowledge that Empyreal is part of the solution to help with financial transparency. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department will continue its mission to fight illegal marijuana grows and criminal enterprises through its narcotics division. Empyreal will continue operating in San Bernardino County, working with law enforcement in the area for the benefit of citizens and local business owners. On April 13, 2022, the United States Attorney’s Office and Empyreal entered into a settlement agreement whereby the federal government returned 100% of seized funds to Empyreal. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department supported this outcome. The remaining parties are glad to resolve the remainder of the case through non-financial settlement and dismissal.”
This week, seeking to move beyond that controversy while yet continuing to peacefully coexist with the Postmus Cartel, the department sought to generate positive publicity regarding Operation Hammer Strike.
According to the department, since August 30, 2020, under the auspices of Operation Hammer Strike, its deputies and detectives, supervised by sergeants, lieutenants, two captains and a deputy chief, have served 739 search warrants and arrested 866 people countywide, and in the process seized 956,701 cannabis plants, 126,741 pounds of processed marijuana, 60,108 grams of concentrated cannabis, 97.8 pounds of psilocybin mushrooms, 160 grams of methamphetamine, 262 firearms and $2.9 million in cash.
Also as a consequence of Operation Hammer Strike, the sheriff’s department has disconnected 36 electrical bypasses by which growers had tapped into nearby power lines.