(photo by Bill Stelzer)
I admit I must have looked quite incongruous standing on the roof of my one-room cottage on Wednesday morning, September 10, dressed in my pajama pants and a Trinidad Charlie t-shirt as the distinctive whoop-whoop of the rotors of a large helicopter echoed through the broad valley above Virgin Grand Estates and the Westin Resort on the south shore of St. John.
I had already wandered through the quiet residential neighborhood filming the aircraft as it slowly floated up and down the valley, eventually concentrating on an area deep in the center of the ghutt near what is known as the pig farm.
The large black helicopter at times was at eye level to the Bethany Moravian Church nearby while descending over the ghutt at the center of the broad valley between Pastory and Gifft Hill and sweeping up and down, its doors wide open on both sides and dark-clothed figures visible inside looking out.
Eye-level Helicopter Surveillance
Back in my cottage getting ready to go to work when the noise again intensified, I had climbed the rickety stairs to my roof deck to film the ominous aerial war machine while it hovered over my neighbor’s beautifully landscaped ridge-top home.
I admit I felt somewhat at risk when the helicopter swooped in for a broadside look at the strange man standing on the roof filming their military-style police action.
I had a flashback to the aerial assault scene from the Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now.
I subsequently considered that they might have been checking out the unusual vegetation in my new back yard – where I have bound the tufts of tall wild grass into towering dark-green leafy stalks which are naturally-aligned in almost perfect rows in one small patch.
Or maybe it was the red pig motif on my white pajama pants?
Boots on the Ground
As the helicopter moved to a different area, I quickly headed off to work, going first to my mechanic’s shop in the upper ghutt where the police action had been over his head most of the morning.
No, he reported, no apparent law enforcement vehicles had been down the ghutt road since the helicopter was overhead that morning.
On the way out of the ghutt on the back road heading to town, as I passed by the Bethany Moravian Church the police action found me as I came upon a score of a variety of law enforcement officers piling out of three assorted vehicles. The familiar black polo shirts and khakis and bulging belts of weapons and tools of the trade of federal law enforcement officers was very identifiable.
And, I didn’t stop at my house when I passed by heading to town over the back roads to Pine Peace; just in case the feds unloading around the corner were planning to drop by for a chat with the strange-looking man in the red pig pajamas and a look at the strange-looking plants growing in his back yard.
And, although I have several videos of the helicopter circling my neighborhood and my house, I admit that when it swooped in for its closest view of me on my roof deck I was so intimidated that I pressed the wrong button on the camera and didn’t get the really close-up shot.
Trust me, it was eerie looking into the helicopter.
Annual Effort Against Marijuana Growers
It subsequently was reported Saturday, September 13, in the V.I Daily News that the law enforcement operation in my neighborhood was part of “Operation Weed Eater” — what has become an annual “week-long effort against marijuana growing operations on St. Thomas and St. John. The operation was described as “a week-long effort to reduce the territory’s marijuana supply.”
The V.I. Daily News headline read: DEA Finds “$6M worth of marijuana plants on St. Thomas, St. John during helicopter sweep,” but the calculation of that $6 million total was not explained.
The law enforcement effort uprooted 4,003 plants of various sizes, which are valued on the street at $1,500 per pound, Eric Barnard, DEA resident agent in charge and commander of the regional High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force reportedly told the Daily News. (Which would mean the individual plants weighed an average of one pound, presumably not including any roots or soil.)
The DEA used two helicopters provided by the U.S. Coast Guard in Puerto Rico to survey the two islands, the V.I. Daily News reported.
“The helicopter is all we use to detect marijuana,” Barnard told the St. Thomas newspaper. “Once it is visible then we go in and eradicate it.”
No arrests were made during the operation.
The plants were stuffed into bags and transported to an incinerator on island, the St. Thomas newspaper reported.