Police deny that they have officers searching the rugged hillsides south of Moraga after a scary exchange of gunfire between an East Bay Regional Park police officer and several suspected "pot guards" near on Monday night.
But residents living near the remote area straddling the Contra Costa and Alameda County lines said Tuesday that helicopters were flying over the area and small units of officers in camouflage fatigues and armed with automatic weapons were searching the area. Law enforcement sources predicted that officers would return to the scene of the reported shootout in search of evidence Tuesday - and they did.
The police response, which included use of a park police armored vehicle, appears to be the latest exchange in what many feel is a heightened campaign against organized growers operating on public land in Northern California. Earlier this month, East and confiscated 3,300 plants worth an estimated $1 million. No arrests were made in that case.
Park Police Capt. Mark Ruppenthal said early Tuesday that law enforcement personnel were pulling out of Upper San Leandro Reservoir "to plan," and that additional manpower and resources would be needed before a coordinated search could be mounted — and any crop found during the search destroyed. Public access to the area would be curtailed.
But law enforcement sources and some residents maintained that helicopter flights over the largely inaccessible area resumed as soon as morning fog lifted Tuesday — though at least some of the aerial armada were believed to be news helicopters hoping to capture footage of any action on the ground.
Search teams entered the area near the reservoir "as soon as it was safe to fly," law enforcement sources said.
"They'd go in to collect evidence - shell casings and anything else they could find," one former officer said. "It's a crime scene."
Local interest in the Upper San Leandro Reservoir area, a favorite haunt of dedicated hikers about 3.5 miles south of Moraga, heightened shortly after 6:50 p.m. Monday when an East Bay Regional Park police officer left his vehicle to patrol a trail on foot as darkness fell. Some residents living in the leafy, adjacent community of Canyon have hinted at the presence of large-scale "grows" in the area — some operated by locals and others, presumably, by Bay Area gang members or Mexican cartels — and theorize that the officer ran into "guards" posted to protect the grow site.
The unidentified officer reportedly encountered several individuals, at least two of whom were armed with semi-automatic weapons, and ended up returning fire on the group when one of the men opened fire on him.
It was not known how many shots were fired. The officer was not hit and it was not immediately known if he hit any of the men.
No details about the armed men emerged Tuesday, though the man police said opened fire first was described as wearing tan or khaki clothing.
What did emerge is that police have encountered grow operations in the area over the years, photographing armed men in the area within the last couple of years.
"It's all about the crop," one former officer said. "It's not going anywhere. As long as you know where it is, all you have to do is sit on it and eventually haul it out of there."