“Watchgator” seized protecting pot plants

March 14th, 2011 by Staff

www.pe.com — Department of Justice agents raided an East Hemet house Monday night and seized almost 2,300 marijuana plants valued at least $1.5 million — and a four-foot alligator being used to help guard the stash.

Agents with Arcnet, the Allied Riverside Cities Narcotics Enforcement Team, raided the house and found what they described as a “watchgator” named Wally in a back room, where it was living in a black cement-mixing tub full of water.

One man was arrested, and the gator was taken to a sanctuary in San Bernardino County’s High Desert.

The suburban house on Sunset Lane, in an unincorporated area outside Hemet, was a front for an unlicensed, home-operated medicinal marijuana dispensary, ARCNET Commander Brian Link said.

The task force, made up of DOJ agents and local authorities, seized 2,285 marijuana plants of various sizes, processed marijuana and hashish, Link said.

The gator was being kept as a pet, but also was used in the growing area to protect the pot, Link said.

The investigation started when authorities received anonymous complaints that people at the home might be dealing drugs, Link said. Agents who went to the home to question the owner discovered the drug operation and obtained a search warrant.

A resident of the home, John Nathan Donna, 29, was arrested on suspicion of possession of concentrated cannabis and cultivation of marijuana for sale, both felonies. He was booked at the Southwest Detention Center in French Valley and released Tuesday on $100,000 bail.

The gator, which weighed about 55 pounds, was reported to the California Department of Fish and Game, which then contacted the Phelan-based Forever Wild Exotic Animal Sanctuary.

“He was extremely healthy — a little too well taken care of,” said Joel Almquist, who runs the sanctuary. “It’s still an alligator; some are pretty mellow, but if you get bit by a three-footer, you’re going to remember it for a long time. It’s kind of like being bit by a vise with teeth. It’s not a pleasant experience.”

Wally is an American alligator, the same species as those in the Florida Everglades. Almquist received a similar report of an alligator in Hemet several weeks ago, but it was never found. He said he doesn’t know if this is the same one.

Alligators are illegal to own in California, but Almquist said they are easily obtained on the Internet or from other states.

“One of their draws is because they are illegal. That gives them spice to have them,” Almquist said. “They’re cheap and they’re fairly easy to get.”

Gator calls have been common for the Phelan wild animal sanctuary, Almquist said. It has also seized illegally owned Bengal tigers and spitting cobras.

Fish and Game biologist Kevin Brennan said illegal animals often are found along with other illegal activity, such as during drug busts.

Almquist’s facility currently has 16 gators that have been seized from various Inland locations, and he said he has rescued about 70 gators over the past three years.

The pet gators start small, but as they grow larger — Almquist said often when they hit about 32 inches — they tend to be abandoned or killed. Gators have been found in lakes or swimming pools of foreclosed homes, amid mosquito abatement calls.

Brennan said having alligators released into the wild is a major concern.

“It’s got very big jaws, a lot of teeth, and their brains are very small,” he said. “It can be really docile or aggressive, but there’s no predicting their mood or behavior. We don’t want them around people or kids or pets.”

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