By DON THOMPSON|
Associated Press Writer
ELK GROVE, California- 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 $500,000 (euro390,000) home in the quiet subdivision was stuffed with high-grade marijuana, plants covering nearly every square foot.
The bust is one example of a phenomenon that has come to light recently in subdivisions around Sacramento, the capital of California.
Marijuana growers with suspected ties to Asian organized crime have been buying suburban homes _ many in newer developments _ because of the anonymity the drug dealers believe the neighborhoods afford.
They close the blinds and get to work gutting the inside, converting otherwise nondescript tract homes into the latest battleground in the state's campaign against marijuana cartels.
"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 installed security lights and cameras and said some of their neighbors are talking of moving away.
"Now we're just suspicious every time we see something around here," said his wife, Patricia. "You pay this much money, you don't expect those things to happen."
Police are bashing in doors at more homes virtually every day as they develop new leads or are tipped by suddenly wary neighbors. More than three dozen homes have been found to be hiding marijuana groves in just the past seven weeks, most in Sacramento, Elk Grove and Stockton.
Like the others, the home on Elk Grove's Mainline Drive had been converted to what law enforcement officials call a hothouse, with 1,000-watt lights for growing and irrigation networks feeding high-tech hydroponic growing systems.
Walls and ceilings were smashed to allow for complex ventilation and air filtration systems that vented the telltale odor through the attic. A web of extension cords and makeshift electric panels illegally tapped into the outside grid to avoid detection and save thousands of dollars in power bills.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent to convert each of the homes to grow millions of dollars worth of marijuana. Most of the targeted homes were purchased for between $400,000 and $600,000 (euro312,000 and euro468,000).
Those prices are far lower than home prices in the San Francisco Bay area, making Central Valley subdivisions attractive targets for large-scale marijuana growers seeking safe havens.
"They're going into these cookie-cutter communities and making cookie-cutter marijuana factories," said Gordon Taylor, who heads the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration region that runs from Bakersfield to the Oregon border. "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 took the sudden notoriety in stride.
"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 a six-year-old subdivision sprinkled with American flags. "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 began in British Columbia, Canada, where Vietnamese organized crime outfits gutted houses to grow potent "B.C. Bud" that can sell for $5,000 (euro3,900) or more a pound (450 grams) in the United States, said Corporal Pierre Lemaitre of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Growers headed south to avoid increased border protections after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
"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 special agent in charge of Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Idaho.
The Central Valley homes 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. The Internal Revenue Service also is tracing the homes' owners.
Until now, West Coast law enforcement agencies have been more concerned about large-scale outdoor marijuana gardens, which often are planted on public forests or park land by violent Mexican drug cartels. Those operations have caused increasing concern in recent years because they severely degrade the environment and pose a danger to people who wander across them.
The Drug Enforcement Agency reported a 50 percent increase in indoor farms last year, Taylor said. Those operations have several advantages: They can't be spotted by an airplane or hunter, and the plants also can be grown year-round.
"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."