By Tony Barboza and David Pierson Los Angeles Times
DIAMOND BAR, Calif. — Diamond Bar Mayor Steve Tye never noticed anything unusual about the upscale, three-bedroom suburban home a block from his house.
That is until Wednesday, when Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies burst in and found the entire house had been converted into a massive indoor marijuana farm, complete with elaborate irrigation system and overhead lights on timers that were hooked up illegally to bypass meter readings.
It's the second time in just over a week a house turned pot farm has been discovered in Diamond Bar, a wealthy suburb of 58,000 in the eastern San Gabriel Valley. Two more marijuana-cultivating homes were found in a neighboring city this month.
Detectives are now investigating whether the houses might be tied to a similar suburban pot-growing ring busted last year in Northern California and allegedly run by a Chinese gang.
In Diamond Bar alone, authorities have hauled away what authorities estimate to be more than $22 million in pot plants.
Tye said he was stunned when sheriff's deputies told him 1,800 marijuana plants worth an estimated $10 million were being grown near his house. He suspects the growers were counting on Diamond Bar's low profile to conceal their operation.
"It's a disturbing trend. I think people that break the law are always looking for an opportunity to stay hidden from the authorities," he said. "They've used up growing it in mountains, the outlying areas, and now their next greatest idea is doing it in neighborhoods."
Authorities in neighboring Chino Hills have found about $6 million in pot plants in recent weeks, including at one house raided Wednesday. Two weeks ago, police seized 1,300 plants from a six-bedroom house in Chino Hills, said Jodi Miller, spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.
Officials aren't sure whether the cases are connected, but there are some striking similarities. Both houses in Diamond Bar recently had been purchased, apparently with the intent to use suburbia as a cover for major pot cultivation. That's a substantial investment in an area where most houses sell for $600,000 to $1 million, authorities said.
In the first Diamond Bar house, deputies found a special ventilation system designed to prevent the odor of pot from escaping.
The lack of such a system in the Diamond Bar house raided Wednesday allowed the odor of marijuana to waft out to the street, which tipped neighbors off, said Lt. Jim Whitten of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Narcotics Bureau.
"Every room had marijuana growing in it except the bathroom and kitchen," he said. "There's no evidence of anybody living here. It was just all set up for growing."
Last year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and local police discovered similar elaborate pot farms hidden in nearly 40 suburban homes around Northern California. As in the Southern California cases, the suspects allegedly purchased the homes for $500,000 or more and meticulously converted them into cultivation centers. They knocked down walls, installed irrigation systems and even hired gardeners to cut the lawns and take out the trash to avoid raising suspicion, authorities said.
DEA officials believe the Northern California pot ring was operated by a Chinese American crime operation based in San Francisco's Chinatown. Whitten said L.A. County sheriff's investigators were trying to determine whether the Diamond Bar and Chino Hills cases were tied to the ones in Northern California but have yet to make a definitive link.
Diamond Bar, Chino Hills and surrounding communities have seen a huge influx of Asians in recent years, many moving up from Chinese enclaves closer to downtown L.A.
Joaquin Lim, a councilman in Walnut, which is near Diamond Bar, said he was surprised about the possible Chinese gang links to the pot busts. He said his city has dealt with a few prostitution rings secretly operating in suburban homes, but never huge marijuana farms.
"I was totally shocked by how elaborate the operation was," he said. "Criminal elements like to pick Walnut and Diamond Bar because they are remote and [seem like] good places for criminal activity."
Police officials in other San Gabriel Valley communities with large Asian populations said they have not seen any increases in home marijuana farms.
It's not uncommon for pot to be cultivated in houses. But detectives said they were surprised by the huge quantities, which usually are found in large outdoor farms hidden in canyons and on remote parkland. Still, the DEA reports say the amount of pot recovered from indoor farms has increased in recent years.
Elmer Omohundro, 76, who lives down the street from the drug operation uncovered Wednesday in Diamond Bar, said the house gave no clues that thousands of pot plants were inside -- even to his trained eye as a retired L.A. County sheriff's captain. "I didn't see anyone other than people who would come over every month or two to pull some weeds outside. I thought they were gardeners," he said, adding the house was recently remodeled and sold. "I never expected that kind of activity. I never saw anything that would give it away."
In each of the two Diamond Bar incidents, deputies arrested a suspect on suspicion of marijuana cultivation.
Tommy Wong, 27, was arrested soon after Wednesday's raid when he drove up to the house to check on it, Whitten said. In last week's raid in Diamond Bar, deputies arrested Kiet Thanh Chung, 40, who they found inside tending more than 2,000 plants in the five-bedroom house.
But detectives believe the operations are much larger and are searching for more suspects.
"We didn't discover the only two operations. That would be presumptuous of us," Whitten said. "It would take more than one person to operate something like that."