INDEPENDENCE, Calif. – The burned bodies of two people were found Tuesday near an illicit plantation along the Eastern Sierra where 50,000 marijuana plants were found and five people were arrested, authorities said.
The bodies appeared to have been burned in a wildfire that consumed some 35,000 acres of vegetation in the Inyo National Forest this month, Inyo County Sheriff Bill Lutze said.
But the bodies' location near the marijuana growing area, amid other undisclosed evidence, led authorities to believe they were involved in the drug operation, Lutze said.
The bodies were found eight miles northwest of Independence, which is in Owens Valley, between the Sierra Nevada and the Inyo Mountains, about 225 miles north of Los Angeles.
Authorities were led to the unidentified bodies by four men claiming to be family members who were looking for two missing relatives, he said.
"They dropped them off apparently to go quote-unquote backpacking a few weeks ago," Lutze said. "They were supposed to make contact within the first few days and hadn't."
Deputies were questioning the men, but they were not suspected of wrongdoing, he said.
The area where the bodies were found was part of a huge growing operation that agents from federal, state and local agencies raided during a three-month investigation that ended Monday, officials said.
Five illegal immigrants from Mexico were arrested in the raid, Lutze said.
Three of the suspects, who were arrested on July 15, have been taken into custody by U.S. Forest Service and Drug Enforcement Agency officials and would face federal charges, he said.
Two others, arrested Monday, were being charged in Inyo County with cultivation of marijuana, he said.
The plants were found growing in five separate drainage creek beds running out of the Sierra within a 70-square-mile area, Lutze said. The growing sites were in the Inyo National Forest and on Bureau of Land Management lands.
The investigation, executed by agents from more than a dozen agencies, began when hikers who saw the marijuana plantations nestled in the forested areas tipped off authorities, Lutze said.