By Natalie Johnson / firstname.lastname@example.org
While the legal marijuana trade is booming in Washington, large-scale illegal pot grows with out-of-state ties, many in converted homes in residential areas, are increasingly cropping up like weeds in rural Lewis County communities.
In the past year, investigators in Lewis County have raided at least seven large, indoor marijuana grows throughout the county, collecting more than 8,000 plants.
Fifty pounds of processed buds were seized at one grow alone. To put that in perspective, one grower told investigators last year he sold the product in Seattle for $900 per pound.
“I think we’re going to continue to see this activity for a while, especially in rural areas,” Sheriff Rob Snaza said in a briefing with the Board of Lewis County Commissioners Tuesday morning.
While the growers are able to hide their tracks from the casual observer, investigators have in many of the local cases been able to confirm their suspicions and get search warrants with the help of public utilities.
The county’s two most recent marijuana raids, in Vader and Winlock, were discovered both through evidence collected at a grow in Pacific County as part of an investigation coordinated by the Grays Harbor County drug task force and through hugely inflated power bills at residential addresses.
On Dec. 8, investigators raided a house and outbuildings in the 700 block of B Street in Vader, less than a block from Vader’s city hall.
A driver’s license found at a grow Nov. 29 in Pacific County led them to the Vader address.
According to court documents, they used Lewis County Public Utility District records to confirm the home’s residents and found power bills to be unusually high for a house — $600 for a two-month billing cycle.
Detectives arrested suspect Hiep D. Doan, 33, when he drove up to the house while they were seizing evidence including more than 600 plants.
Doan’s trial is currently scheduled for this March.
The Vader grow was less than a block away from city hall. Snaza said people have asked how area residents couldn’t smell the hundreds of growing plants.
“In the old days, you’d have been able to,” he said.
He said the answer is the state-of-the-art filter systems also employed by legal grows.
On Tuesday, Undersheriff Wes Rethwill told the county commissioners that about a week after Doan’s arrest and the raid on the Vader grow, detectives executed a search warrant on his vehicle. They found “a very substantial power bill” for an address in Winlock, Rethwill said.
The bill was for more than $6,000.
“It’s called a clue,” Snaza added.
On Dec. 28, investigators served a search warrant at the address in the 100 block of Nelson Road in Winlock and arrested three more suspects — Nga Dong, 65, and Le Hai Son, 39, both of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Chanh Nguyen, 34, of San Jose, California.
All three were ordered held on $50,000 bail at their first court appearance Dec. 29. Their trials are currently scheduled to start this March.
Investigators seized more than 1,500 plants.
Snaza told the county commissioners Tuesday that a large amount of money is involved in each of the grows, not just in profits from selling their product.
As an example, he said each of the light bulbs in a typical indoor grow could cost $100.
Rethwill said it’s unknown exactly where the money from the operation or the marijuana was going, but said they’d heard it was headed toward the east coast. The suspects in the most recent Vader and Winlock grows had ties to California.
“Who knows? It’s off the streets,” he said.