January 8, 2004
MARIJUANA LAND GRAB
by Carlotta Grandstaff
Ravalli County authorities arrested a Corvallis man in October following a two-year investigation into his alleged marijuana-growing operation.
In addition to seizing more than the felony amount of 50 plants, the sheriff's office also wants to seize the man's mother's property.
Len Ray Zito, 49, has been charged with several criminal offenses, including growing marijuana with intent to sell, a felony that in Montana carries a mandatory minimum sentence of two years, with the possibility of a life sentence.
The successful investigationóby a sheriff's office that in recent years has lost virtually all its experienced detectives and drug investigators to retirementówasn't enough to satisfy Ravalli County authorities, however.
Earlier this month, Sheriff Chris Hoffman began proceedings to confiscate the land on which Zito allegedly grew the pot. The property, believed to be about 38 acres, belongs to Zito's mother, who, according to the complaint filed against her son, knew he was growing marijuana there. That allegation may make her an accessory of sorts, though no charges have been filed against her. It also gives authorities the right to begin property forfeiture proceedings, even though her son has not yet been convicted.
When contacted about the property seizure, Sheriff Hoffman seemed surprised. He had already received three phone calls from citizens critical of his efforts to seize Swinson's land.
Hoffman says an increased number of meth lab operations has pushed investigations of all drug crimes, regardless of the drug, to his office's front burner. He acknowledged that perhaps in the minds of the citizenry, not all drugs are created equal. "I guess some people differentiate between the hard drugs, like meth, and marijuana."
Hoffman, in his first term as sheriff, says he's still on a learning curve. But he's unwilling to back down from his current plans to seize Swinson's 38 acres, because, he says, the law gives him the option of doing so. When all the facts are out, he says, citizens will see his side of it.