In the largest operation of its kind, federal agents swept across the Sacramento region Tuesday and Wednesday targeting about 75 homes serving as suspected marijuana growing sites that authorities say are operated by a Chinese organized crime syndicate.
The raids, which involved more than 500 federal, state and local agents, hit homes from Elk Grove to Sacramento to rural areas, and are aimed at forcing the forfeiture of about 100 homes to the federal government, an effort valued at hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate and marijuana.
“This represents one of the largest residential forfeiture efforts in the nation’s history,” the U.S. Justice Department said.
The investigation began in 2014 as authorities began to see an uptick in marijuana growing operations concealed in residential neighborhoods throughout the Sacramento area, and escalated in the last year as agents used utility bills and sophisticated financial analysis to track millions of dollars coming from China into the United States for the purchase of the homes.
The buyers, typically Chinese citizens in the country legally, are suspected of turning the homes into pot-growing operations that then shipped the marijuana through trucks, mail and couriers to the Eastern seaboard for sale, authorities say.
This week‘s raids resulted in the seizure of more than 61,050 marijuana plants, 200 kilos of processed marijuana valued at up to $100 million and about $100,000 in cash, as well as 15 firearms, officials say. Those numbers are expected to grow as the final tallies are calculated.
The bulk of the raids took place this week, although a couple dozen had been searched in prior weeks, including one in the 9900 block of Pianella Way, in a quiet subdivision in Elk Grove, about two months ago.
Neighbors said they saw authorities hauling away black bags filled with marijuana plants and taking a female occupant, who appeared to be Asian, into custody.
“I just woke up one morning, cop cars everywhere, and all the pot plants were in black bags in the garage,” said Mar Caballero, who lives across the street. “There were guys in hazmat suits.” He said the occupant was taken away in handcuffs.
The home was later put on the market, and a Realtor’s sign says a sale is pending. Wang Xiong, who works for HP Real Estate, was checking on the property Wednesday afternoon but said he had no information about the buyer, seller or the raid. “It’s all news to me,” he said. Caballero said he had no previous interaction with the woman but her living arrangement seemed strange. She lived alone but had a minivan, which was almost always parked in the driveway. “It was kind of odd: a minivan, only one woman, no kids,” he said.
Another neighbor, Steve Johnson, said he believed other people lived there as well, but that he had no inkling of any wrongdoing.
“I had no clue that they were growing marijuana there,” he said. “This is a very quiet neighborhood.”
Federal officials said many of the people tending the grows inside the homes were essentially “indentured servants” forced to remain there and have food and supplies brought to them. Those individuals were offered victim assistance during the raids, and a handful accepted the help, officials said.
In an unusual twist, no arrests have yet been made as the investigation continues and focuses on the manner in which the homes were purchased and the identity of suspects federal authorities believe handled the transactions.
McGregor Scott, the U.S. attorney for the Sacramento-based Eastern District of California, emphasized that the raids, which used flash-bang grenades to gain access to some homes, are not aimed at restricting California’s new state law allowing recreational marijuana use.
“It absolutely has nothing to do with that,” Scott said. “This is illegal under anybody’s law.”
Instead, he said, they are targeting a foreign operation that he says has increased crime in neighborhoods where they are based and represents a massive effort to subvert federal marijuana laws.