More than 150 law enforcement agents fanned out across Northern California last week to shut down a crime ring police say is responsible for running a network of marijuana grow operations potentially worth millions of dollars.
Nine people were arrested and about 2,500 pot plants were seized from seven indoor grow houses in Sacramento, Elk Grove, San Jose, Milpitas and Oakland.
With the exception of the Oakland residence in the 6600 block of Foothill Boulevard, all of the grows were pirating electricity by bypassing the utility meters and installing separate circuits, said Gordon Taylor, assistant special agent in charge at the Drug Enforcement Agency's Sacramento district office.
Another home in Elk Grove had been used as a grow house for several months but had been dismantled by the time 15 federal search warrants were served at several locations Wednesday, including the San Francisco address of a suspected supervisor within the ring.
Taylor said the grow operations had the capacity to produce more than a ton of pot a year with an estimated street value of nearly $10 million. During the months-long investigation, law enforcement officers observed the growers coming and going with bags they suspected were used for holding pounds of marijuana and bags of growing equipment.
All of the grow houses were within residential neighborhoods, and could have placed other residents at risk.
In six of the grows, the electrical meter had been bypassed and they created their own circuit, he said. It's very dangerous, obviously from the perspective of potential fire hazard, but there's also extreme danger from home-invasion robberies. We've seen that going on throughout the state with the increase of indoor grows.
Elk Grove police initiated the investigation and sought assistance from the DEA; Immigrations, Customs and Enforcement; and the IRS-Criminal Investigation Division. Several federal, state and local law enforcement agencies also worked on the investigation.
The number of plants recovered at each grow operation varied, with the largest haul of 1,097 plants coming from a home on the 9200 block of Balboa Park in Elk Grove, followed by 493 plants from a home in the 800 block of Stickroth Drive in Milpitas, and 359 plants from a home on the 2700 block of Rainfield Drive in San Jose.
Only 10 plants were recovered from the Oakland residence, but agents did seize 15 pounds of processed pot there and arrested Diep Hoang Vu, 38, a suspected worker at the grow houses. Vu has an extensive criminal history that includes a 16-year prison sentence for a felony rape conviction.
Also arrested were Chien Minh Le, 41, and Thuy Thi Tran, 51, both of Oakland; Nhung Thi Vu, 51, of San Francisco; Hung Ngoc Pham, 28, Cuong Thoi Long, 54, and Phuong Pham, 35, all of Sacramento; Quoc Bui Long, 44, of San Jose; and Tuan Chu, 28, a Vietnamese citizen, whose residence is unknown.
All are charged with conspiracy to manufacture marijuana and manufacturing marijuana, which carry a minimum of 10 years in prison to a maximum of life in prison and a fine up to $4 million.
They also are charged with maintaining a place for manufacturing marijuana, which carries a maximum prison term and a fine up to $500,000, if convicted.