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China drug cartel’s pot empire spread into Placer

Thousands of plants seized at rural grow house
By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Columnist
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An upscale home in a rural subdivision quietly sitting between Auburn and Lincoln had a big secret.

It was one of more than 100 houses authorities say are linked to a Chinese drug cartel traced back to Fujian Province.

Since 2014, state and federal law enforcement agencies have been investigating a number of indoor marijuana grows in residential neighborhoods throughout the Sacramento area.

This past week, the U.S. Attorney outlined common elements that started to emerge in several cases, connecting dozens of properties into a chain of secret cannabis grow houses:

Down payments on the houses were financed by wire transfers of funds mainly from China’s Fujian Province. Common realtors were used. They used hard-money lenders rather than traditional banks. And straw buyers were used.

According to the U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott, the houses would then be converted into large-scale marijuana grows that often occupied most, if not all, of the house and frequently involved hundreds or thousands of marijuana plants.

The plants were harvested, processed and distributed to other parts of the country, particularly the Eastern United States.

In the case of the house between Auburn and Lincoln — the lone property identified so far in court documents in connection with the case — the number of plants was in the thousands.

On Tuesday, federal authorities led a search of the North Forty Road house in Lincoln and found 2,148 cannabis plants growing inside.

By Wednesday, agents had fanned out to other houses, mostly in Sacramento County, and seized more than 60,000 marijuana plants, 200 kilograms of processed marijuana and 15 firearms.

Forfeiture actions are now in place and the regional U.S. Attorney has the support of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Sessions issued a statement describing the action “one of the largest residential forfeiture actions in American history.” Sessions thanked, among others, the Placer county Sheriff’s Office.

Court documents executing the search warrant on the North Forty Road house said that law enforcement also located five bags of processed marijuana and four generators. The listed owner is Qihua Pan, who bought the property as an “investment rental” for $735,000 in October 2016. In December 2017, surveillance operations on North Forty Road, near the Wise and Garden Bar Road intersection, had a breakthrough when a minivan registered to an Elk Grove resident linked to marijuana grows in Calaveras County was observed at the house. That county was identified as a center of illicit home grows by the China cartel.

By Tuesday, agents were ready to move in for a massive regional search and seizure effort that included a  3,500-square-foot, five bedroom Lincoln-area home on 10 acres.

“This operation targeted a sophisticated large-scale organized criminal network operating in our backyard,” DEA Special Agent in Charge John martin said. “The citizens of our community deserve safe neighborhoods and we will work every day to ensure it.”