An Eagle Point man is accused of taking part in a string of thefts of high-value property — including more than $300,000 worth of marijuana, a backhoe and a fishing boat on a trailer.
Although recreational marijuana is now legal in Oregon, thieves have been targeting growers, sometimes getting away with marijuana worth thousands of dollars.
In the latest case, Tanner Ray Sowell, 34, of the 100 block of Daryl Lane in Eagle Point, faces three counts of first-degree aggravated theft, two counts of unauthorized use of a vehicle and a single count of second-degree burglary. Sowell pleaded not guilty to the charges Thursday and has a pre-trial conference scheduled for July 10.
Other men are believed to have been involved in the crimes, but co-defendants have yet to be named, according to Jackson County Circuit Court records.
The Jackson County Sheriff's Office began investigating a string of costly thefts in October 2016, when a Trail resident reported the theft of a fishing motorboat on a trailer. The boat and trailer were worth more than $40,000, according to a police affidavit.
In March, a Prospect home was broken into and multiple items were taken while the owners were on vacation. A backhoe was also driven away from the property, the affidavit said.
In April, the owner of an Eagle Point marijuana business reported marijuana worth more than $300,000 was stolen by suspects caught on video surveillance footage, the affidavit said.
The surveillance footage shows men with flashlights looking into large plastic tubs used to store marijuana. The men are seen carrying the tubs and exiting metal storage units where the tubs were kept. They were wearing baseball caps and had bandanas partially concealing their faces.
Soon after the theft, the owner of the marijuana business told news media he had to lay off his employees.
The sheriff's office began to suspect Sowell was involved in the thefts. He was the owner of a backhoe, which was observed to have a part on it from the stolen backhoe, the affidavit said.
On May 2, the stolen backhoe was located hidden in the forest outside Prospect. Sowell's backhoe was also located and found to have stolen parts on it, police said. The following day, law enforcement personnel found items stolen from the Prospect home at Sowell's home, the affidavit said.
On May 9, police attempted to contact Sowell but he fled. A search of the vehicle he left behind revealed an outboard motor from the stolen fishing boat, plus bags of processed marijuana from the Eagle Point marijuana business, the affidavit said.
Sowell was found and arrested May 24.
According to the affidavit, he allegedly confessed to taking the Trail boat with others, removing the motor for himself and abandoning the boat and trailer.
Sowell also allegedly confessed to helping take the Prospect backhoe, then removing parts so he could repair his own disabled backhoe. Sowell told investigators other people gave him items from inside the Prospect home.
In another alleged confession, Sowell said he and others broke into the marijuana business to get large quantities of marijuana.
His criminal history includes convictions for second-degree criminal trespassing and attempted first-degree theft in 2013, menacing in 2015 and a wildlife violation in 2016, court records show.
He has several other pending cases with charges that include first-degree theft, second-degree theft, first-degree burglary and fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer.
Meanwhile, Sowell has been released from the Jackson County Jail.
Other recent high-profile marijuana thefts include:
• In December 2016, a Wimer marijuana grower was assaulted and the perpetrators allegedly stole more than $300,000 worth of processed marijuana by using a rented truck. The grower was hospitalized for several days with injuries that included a broken nose and two black eyes. The Jackson County District Attorney's Office has named seven people it believes were involved in the Wimer theft.
• In March, a Shady Cove grower reported his home was burglarized and $9,000 worth of marijuana in a garbage bag was stolen. He was able to help the sheriff's office nab a suspect by setting up a trail camera, which captured images of two men returning to retrieve the marijuana, which they had hidden outdoors with plans to return later. So far in that case, Jordan Richard Rock, 22, of the 7400 block of Highway 227 in Trail, faces charges of first-degree burglary, first-degree theft and second-degree criminal mischief.