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Major Operation - Police Seize Pot Plants
More than six dozen marijuana plants were seized, some $5,000 in cash confiscated, and two people arrested in connection with a major marijuana grow off Highway 120 west of Escalon on Friday.

The grow, hidden behind strawberry fields, corn and grapevines in the 17000 block of South Brennan Road, had apparently been there for some time, said police. The largest plant stood about five feet wide and measured nearly 10 feet tall. Some of the plants were being harvested, and a drying room had been set up on the property as well.

Arrested were Cola Sychampanakhone, 41, of Sacramento and Khamsao Sychampanakhone, 57, of St. Cloud, Minnesota. They were both booked into San Joaquin County Jail late Friday afternoon and face further court action. The two - identified by police as an uncle and a nephew ‑ were scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 25 after The Times went to press in connection with the case.

Cola was charged with felony planting and cultivation of marijuana, felony possession of marijuana for sale and felony conspiracy to commit a crime. Bail on those charges was set at $200,000 but authorities said he was also wanted on a no bail felony parole hold by the United States Border Patrol.

Khamsao was jailed on $200,000 bail for felony planting and cultivation of marijuana, felony possession of marijuana for sale and felony conspiracy to commit a crime. Another $5,000 in bail was added on an Orange County Sheriff's Department warrant for misdemeanor vehicle violations.

Both men were still in custody as of press time.

Escalon Police said it was a pair of unrelated traffic stops in the area of Highway 120 and Brennan earlier in the week that helped break the case.

Officer Gustavo Flores made a traffic stop near the location on Thursday and said the smell of the illegal weed permeated the area. That prompted him to investigate and he discovered the rows of marijuana plants in between the legal produce. Flores then applied for a search warrant and, armed with the warrant granted by a San Joaquin County Superior Court judge, officers made contact at the location on Friday morning.

The property owner rents the property out and authorities believe the owner had no knowledge of the illegal activities occurring there.

The strawberry stand has been operating for the last several years, with the illegal grow also apparently going on in addition to the other produce. Strawberries, corn, squash and grapes are produced at the location as well.

"They were living in a makeshift shed out here on the property," Sgt. Dusty Brookshire said of the Sychampanakhone pair on Friday. "They have a drying room where they are harvesting, and we found a shed with fertilizer and various chemicals."

The two seemed to be living there while they conducted the harvest, said officials, with the shed complete with bedding and mosquito netting, a cooking area set up outside, a TV hook up and more.

"This is one of the largest outside grows I've come across," said Escalon Police Chief Milt Medeiros. "And these were nice, mature plants, not seedlings. We're looking at between 70 and 80 plants, not counting what is drying."

A final count showed 77 plants pulled from the ground in the area with a street value estimated in excess of $308,000. A sophisticated drip irrigation system was utilized to help with the grow. Authorities are still determining whether sales were done at the roadside stand at all, or if the marijuana was simply grown and harvested here for distribution at other locations throughout the Central Valley and possibly beyond.

Brookshire said authorities also found some Medi-Cann paperwork on site, which is provided to those who have permission for a medicinal marijuana grow. But, he said, the name was not that of either of the two suspects and the amount of marijuana far exceeded anything that can be grown for medicinal purposes.

The investigation is continuing.