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Aerial Search Helps Police Seize 511 Pot Plants

St. Croix Deputy Chief Christopher Howell describes how aerial flights detected illegal marijuana plants.A police sweep in the skies over St. Croix Wednesday netted more than 500 marijuana plants and a couple of stolen vehicles that had been abandoned in the bush after being stripped, the V.I. Police Department announced Thursday.

Deputy Chief Christopher Howell reported on the operation at a press conference in which he described a very busy week for the department. And the week’s not over, he noted, with more work for the department to come.

The air operation was conducted with the help of a privately owned helicopter, the owner of which had donated the time to the police. Howell said the owner did not wish to be named, so the deputy chief declined to answer questions, other than to note the helicopter "is very expensive, it would probably exceed the budget of the department."

Howell said the officers involved in the search took to the sky at 9 a.m. and were aloft until almost 5 p.m. The 511 marijuana plants seized in about 20 different locations ranged in height from a few inches to taller than 6 feet, he said. Some were growing in small, carefully concealed plots in undeveloped areas. Others were in backyard gardens or in pots right outside of kitchen doors.

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Police will investigate the properties where the marijuana was seized and some arrests might take place, he said.

The presence of the helicopter hovering over the island for most of the day Wednesday may have helped lead to rumors of a prison escape, Howell said. The flight had been planned for a couple of weeks, and as it turned out, it happened the day after police had arrested fugitive murder suspect Edwin Encarnacion in an operation that also included helicopter surveillance.

People were reporting to friends and neighbors that Encarnacion had been taken to the hospital and managed to escape or had escaped from the court where he was taken for his advice of rights hearing. Neither scenario was true, Howell said. Encarnacion was not taken to the hospital, and at the courthouse "there was no attempted escape, and certainly no escape."

Encarnacion had been on the run since Aug. 14, when police found the body of Jorge Parrilla in his partially burned house in Estate Whim. Witnesses had reported seeing the suspect leaving the scene shortly before the fire broke out.

Howell said that police were eager to capture him, but that friends and family may have been helping him hide out.

"There wasn’t anyone on the force who didn’t want to be the one who put cuffs on him," the deputy chief said.

During the intervening weeks they received several reports of people who said they had seen him, but when officers arrived the person was gone, or the person turned out not to be the suspect. Howell said they had one report that turned out to be Encarnacion’s brother, who bears a strong family resemblance to the suspect.

The police got their break Tuesday when a van was found crashed into a house at Campo Rico. A dead man was found at the scene, and a car had been hijacked by a man the witnesses described as looking like the suspect.

The car was found a short time later in Estate La Grange, and police began closing the net. No car was allowed into or out of the perimeter without being searched, often several times, Howell said. Helicopter surveillance and officers going door to door eventually turned up the suspect in an abandoned house, where he was arrested.

Howell said every man available took part in the search and officers whose shifts had ended stayed on to help track the suspect down.

Investigators have not forgotten that Encarnacion probably had help in eluding capture so long, and as they proceed with the investigation they will be looking to identify anyone who did so, and hold them accountable, the deputy chief added.

As it happened, Howell, canine officers and members of the Special Operations unit had been doing a presentation at Eulalie Rivera Elementary School when the call came that the suspect had been spotted. So all those officers who were needed for the search were already together and close to the scene.

It did cut short the visit to the elementary school, but Howell said the visit won’t be the last.

"This is something I’ve wanted to do since I became deputy chief," he said of the visits.

A similar program gets under way this weekend when officers will start going door to door in St. Croix’s housing communities to talk to the residents and find out what their needs and concerns are.

Officers will be "vertical patrolling" in the housing communities. According to the deputy chief, this means they will not just drive through the area. They’ll get out of the cars, walk up the stairs go out behind the buildings. The officers will get to know the people in the housing communities, and the residents will begin to recognize the officers and see them as people there to do a job, protecting them, Howell said.

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