Pilot on pot patrol hits the jackpot

After hours of scouring the ground for renegade marijuana plants from the air last Thursday, the pilot of a Highway Patrol helicopter was ready to call it day. But as he crested the Balsams, in the homestretch of his flight back to Asheville, he looked down and hit the jackpot: 664 pot plants clustered in more than two-dozen small plots.

“This pilot is pretty alert. He was just looking out and saw what he knew as marijuana,” said Detective Mark Mease, a narcotics investigator with the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office. “When you know what you are looking for it kind of stands out.”

The cultivator of all that pot had done his best to disguise it, though. The plots were a scant 6 feet across, tucked in to an overgrown pasture awash in all manners of briars and brush.

But once on the ground, it wasn’t hard to figure out who was responsible, Mease said. Narrow but distinct paths led from plot to plot, and eventually back to a nearby trailer on the property.

“It is kind of hard to hide when the trails lead back to your house,” Mease said.

Daniel Keith Messer, 51, was home at the time. He answered the door when Mease knocked, and in short order had confessed. Messer has been charged for now with manufacturing marijuana, but more charges are likely.

Officers worked well into the night chopping down the pot and hauling it off. The pilot, meanwhile, flew back to Asheville to refuel then returned to run air support, both for security and to lend a spotlight as officers dragged armloads of the tall pot stalks down the mountain.

It was a big bust, one of the biggest Haywood has seen in years. Mease said there isn’t as much pot grown today as there used to be. Pot cultivation in the mountains has been tapering off since the 1980s.

“It is a lot of labor. If you have it planted out somewhere on a mountain you have to hike in, and they aren’t willing to do that for the reward,” Mease said.

Plus, searches from the air like this one and the ensuing busts have become an annual ritual this time of year. More pot is being grown indoors in hydroponic operations these days.

Mease doubts this was Messer’s first foray into growing marijuana, not with that many plants under his wing. It’s a lot to maintain.

Had Messer gotten to harvest all that pot, he could have made half a million dollars on the wholesale market, Mease estimates. All that for some seeds, potting soil, a little fertilizer and sweat equity.

“It is a huge profit. There is nothing else you can grow that makes money like that. Of course, there is nothing else you can grow that gets you arrested either,” Mease said.

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