N.H. marijuana bust reveals a growing business
| January 22, 2007
DERRY, N.H. -- There was, neighbors say, something odd about the new house, a neo-Colonial with 2,500 square feet, four bedrooms and two baths, red shutters, and a gold-speckled Christmas wreath -- but no inhabitants.
"We saw vans pulling up to the house," said Jess Townsend , 17, who lives across the street with her parents in Derry. "We kind of knew something was going on because no one was ever there."
Police suspected something as well. Last month, they searched the home, appraised at $423,000 , along with 10 others in upscale neighborhoods across New Hampshire, and turned up what the New Hampshire State Police calls "the largest and most sophisticated indoor marijuana growing operation" in the state's history. Police seized 10,318 plants, worth an estimated $42 million on the street.
So far at least eight people -- several with ties to Revere and Everett -- have been indicted on federal charges, according to court records. The investigation is ongoing, and more indictments could occur, officials say.
While large, indoor pot farms are not unusual in other parts of the country, particularly the West Coast, the case represents a novel attempt to hide an alleged operation in the quiet of southern New Hampshire's suburbia, investigators say. It also reflects the emergence of Asian criminals in the marijuana growing business.
"They did this in places where no one looked for it, no one suspected it, no one expected it," said Captain Russ Conte , of New Hampshire State Police, who described the scheme as "ingenious."
Efforts to reach the alleged growers were not successful. Lawyers for five of the indicted growers did not return phone calls, two declined to comment, and one, James Gleason , said he was still collecting facts from his client, Tai Tuan Nguyen, who requires a translator. Gleason said he would enter a not guilty plea to charges of conspiracy to possess marijuana with intent to distribute.
The New Hampshire operation might have gone undetected if not for the electricity that police say the growers were using in massive amounts to power the lights needed to cultivate the plants. The growers did not pay for the electricity, police say, because they bypassed meters.
But in October, a power surge sparked a fire in a house in Hooksett, where firefighters found hundreds of marijuana plants, police say. Three weeks later, a transformer blew in a nearby town, Epsom, leading police to another house with a cache of marijuana plants.
Police and investigators declined to explain how they linked the Hooksett and Epsom homes with the 11 they raided on Dec. 13 in Derry, Londonderry, Andover, Canterbury, Pembroke, Concord, Chester, Weare, and Hopkinton as part of "Operation Green Thumb."
Page 2 of 2 --Town assessing records show most of the homes were bought in 2006, under an assortment of names.
Police say the homes -- many newly constructed, sited on multi-acre plots -- were elaborate marijuana labs, where growers did not live but visited regularly. The plants generally were kept in basements, where dozens of lights were used to create a hyper-greenhouse effect. Temperatures reached 80 degrees, ideal for hydroponic marijuana plants, officials said.
The houses were equipped with ventilation systems that pumped in carbon dioxide and sucked out the plants' pungent smell.
The individuals indicted in the growing scheme are Da Van Ha and Huu Quang Dinh, of Everett; Dung T. Nguyen, a self-employed floor tiler, of Revere; Phuong Luong , Quoc My Tran , 20, of Revere; Nu T. Tran, Tai Tuan Nguyen, and Gary Sydavong, according to court documents, which did not provide addresses for all the suspects.
In a signal of the investigation's importance, the New Hampshire US Attorney's office is handling the cases, and this month restricted all information about the case. US Attorney Thomas P. Colantuono was not available for comment, a spokeswoman said.
The National Drug Intelligence Center in its 2007 "Drug Threat Assessment" found that Asian drug groups -- primarily Vietnamese and often based out of Canada -- increasingly control high potency marijuana distribution. Many, the report says, operate indoor grow sites in homes purchased and modified for growing marijuana. The Asian criminal groups are difficult to detect, the report states, because they often are family-based networks within insular communities.
Hiep Chu , executive director of Viet-AID Inc., a Vietnamese assistance group based in Boston, said the individuals allegedly involved in the New Hampshire operation are not reflective of the larger Vietnamese community.
"I am not surprised to hear that some Vietnamese could have done this, but I have not heard about a trend like that in our community," Chu said.
A police affidavit, filed in federal court, illustrates one alleged operation. In Hopkinton, the affidavit states, police found 400 marijuana plants, numerous light bulbs for plants , and two large exhaust vents at a house. There, they arrested Quoc My Tran. Tran told them that his mother, Nu Tran, had been recruited by Tai Tuan Nguyen to move from Philadelphia to Revere to help with the marijuana cultivation.
Nu Tran, according to the affidavit, purchased the home in Hopkinton using funds from Nguyen, who also provided her with monthly funds and promised to pay her $10,000 for each harvest. Nguyen said he wanted six to seven harvests per year, the affidavit states. Quoc said that he had arrived a month earlier from Philadelphia to assist his mother, according to the affidavit.
An attorney for Nu Tran, Michael Smith , declined to comment. An attorney for Quoc Tran, Michael Iacopino , did not return a call.
"It's way too early to tell who is connected to what and to whom, and how much is coincidence and how much is actually connected," said Gleason, attorney for Nguyen.
At another house, one in Chester, an affidavit shows that police found three bundles of $9,000 each in $20 bills and a drug ledger with names and amounts of money in the purse of Phuong Luong, who was sitting outside in a blue mini van.
Phuong Luong's attorney, Adam Harris Bernstein, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
In Derry, the house on Gulf Road has been seized and sits empty. No arrests have been made in connection with the house, which records show belongs to Tran Hung .
Brian Chirichiello , a Derry town councilor, said, "I guess the drug dealers are getting more stealthy -- coming out of the major cities and going into the smaller towns. . . . Not that we're naive," adding that Derry, with a population of 34,300, is the fourth-largest community in the state and is not far from Manchester and the Massachusetts border.
Derry police Captain Vernon Thomas said his department investigates a significant amount of drug activity because of Derry's proximity to Interstate 93 and the state border.
Still, on the quiet back country way of Gulf Road, a marijuana lab was not what neighbors imagined. Lynne Townsend , a speech and hearing pathologist, who lives across the street from the seized house, said she occasionally saw a van outside the house and assumed the owners were dropping off furniture.
"I didn't think they were storing 900 marijuana plants," she said.
Her daughter, Jess Townsend, said her curiosity initially was piqued because the house's shades were always drawn and the porch light was left on. Criminal activity was not what came to mind, and yet, she said, "I don't know how they thought they were going to get away with it here. It's so quiet. Nothing ever happens here."