Published in the Newsday, Tuesday, September 26, 2006, 2:40 PM EDT
Cartels Use Surburban Homes to Grow Pot
By DON THOMPSON
Associated Press Writer
ELK GROVE, Calif. -- Leon Nunn stepped out his front door one recent afternoon only to be waved back by a squadron of drug agents using a battering ram on a neighbor's home. The half-million-dollar home in the quiet subdivision was found to be stuffed with high-grade marijuana plants, growing in soil-free trays under bright lights.
More than 40 similar busts have been reported over the past two months in neighborhoods in and around Sacramento, exposing what has become a new battleground in California's battle against marijuana cartels.
Pot growers with suspected ties to Asian organized crime in San Francisco have been buying suburban homes to the east because of the anonymity the neighborhoods offer, and because the houses are relatively affordable by California standards. The owners then close the blinds and convert the homes into marijuana hothouses.
"We had no idea. I was shocked," said Nunn, an associate minister at Elk Grove's Progressive Church of God in Christ. "We never saw them or heard from them. It was just a real quiet house on the block."
The Nunns have since installed security lights and cameras and said some of their neighbors are talking about moving away.
"Now we're just suspicious every time we see something around here," said the minister's wife, Patricia. "You pay this much money, you don't expect those things to happen."
Until now, West Coast law enforcement agencies have been more concerned about large-scale outdoor marijuana gardens, which often are planted in public forests or parks by Mexican drug cartels.
The Drug Enforcement Agency saw a 50 percent increase nationwide in indoor operations in 2005 from the year before, said Gordon Taylor, who heads the Drug Enforcement Administration region in central and Northern California.
Growing marijuana indoors has certain advantages: The operations cannot be spotted by an airplane or a hunter, and the plants can be grown year-round.
Police from Sacramento to Stockton, about 40 miles to the south, are bashing in doors at homes virtually every day as they develop new leads or are tipped by suddenly wary neighbors.
"I've been doing this almost 20 years, and I have never seen this many indoor grow operations in such a small area in such a short period of time," Taylor said. "Some people might characterize it as an epidemic."
The home on Elk Grove's Mainline Drive had 1,000-watt lights, as well as high-tech hydroponic growing systems.
Walls and ceilings were smashed to allow for complex ventilation and filtration systems that vented the telltale odor of pot through the attic. A web of extension cords and makeshift electric panels was used to illegally tap into the outside grid to avoid detection and save thousands of dollars in expenses.
Most of the targeted homes were bought for between $400,000 and $600,000. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent to convert each of them to grow millions of dollars worth of marijuana.
"They're going into these cookie-cutter communities and making cookie-cutter marijuana factories," Taylor said. All of a sudden, the neighbors "have an organized crime marijuana factory right next to them. It's alarming."
Some neighbors said they were too frightened to be quoted. Others were able to laugh about it.
"I tell the neighbors, `You weren't even cutting me in on that fortune you had growing down the street,'" said John McAlister, who lives across from the Nunns in the 6-year-old subdivision. "They look at me like, `Don't even say that.' They were shocked, to say the least."
For all the sophistication of the operations, many neighbors said they were suspicious because the owners neglected to mow or water their lawns.
"We suspected it, when you spend $500,000 on a home and let it go to pot, so to speak," said Marilyn Smith, who lives across from another Elk Grove home that was converted to a marijuana factory. "Nobody was ever there and the blinds were all closed."
The phenomenon was seen earlier in British Columbia, Canada, where Vietnamese organized crime outfits gutted houses to grow potent "B.C. Bud" that can sell for $5,000 or more a pound in the United States. Growers headed south to avoid increased border enforcement after the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to investigators.
"It's definitely a concerted effort by Asian organized crime groups in Canada to move part of their operation down to the United States," said Rodney Benson, the DEA's agent in charge of Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Idaho.
The homes in California's Central Valley are linked to San Francisco's Chinatown and have "all the markings of Asian organized crime," said the DEA's Taylor.
Five San Francisco residents were charged with federal marijuana crimes last month in connection with some of the busts in Elk Grove. Police in Elk Grove and Stockton have arrested several other people in recent days.
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.