By Natalie Johnson / firstname.lastname@example.org
Crime: Latest Raids Mirror Similar Illegal Activity Discovered Earlier This Year in Lewis County
A team of investigators led by the Grays Harbor County Drug Task Force executed search warrants at suspected marijuana grow operations tended by Chinese nationals in Grays Harbor, Thurston and King counties this week, resulting in the confiscation of an estimated $80 million or more in plants.
Starting at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, investigators began executing 50 search warrants. The raids resulted in 44 arrests, 26 vehicle confiscations, and the seizure of guns and other items of value, according to the sheriff’s office.
Investigators also found $400,000 in cash and gold and seized 32,449 marijuana plants.
The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and the county’s Joint Narcotic Enforcement team were among more than two dozen agencies participating in Tuesday’s raids.
Illegal marijuana grows involving Chinese nationals in states that have legalized marijuana are becoming increasingly common, said Chief Criminal Deputy Steve Shumate, of the Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s Office.
“Throughout the western United States pretty much any state that’s legal you’ll see there have been big busts,” he said.
While no warrants were served in Lewis County Tuesday, several similar raids have been conducted in the county in the past year.
As of October, JNET had served warrants at five grow operations and seized 6,000 plants since December 2106.
Law enforcement agencies from New York and the East Coast helped local agencies in investigations of marijuana grows in Lewis County, according to information previously provided by JNET.
In late September, JNET executed a similar search warrant on Senn Road in Napavine, seizing 2,500 growing plants and arresting two men Jian Ming Zhu, 61, and Jin Liang Tan, 36, who most recently lived in San Francisco.
The men were suspected of being part of a marijuana trafficking operation on the West Coast between Washington and California.
According to court documents, Tan told police he tends both of the grows raided on Sept. 27 and said he transports “large amounts of marijuana to Seattle in exchange for $900 per pound.”
In October, deputies arrested Jing Ming Gao, 55, of Brooklyn, New York, in a “makeshift bedroom” in a Vader marijuana grow located in a barn. Gao was not immediately charged.
“Additional suspects have been identified in this investigation and warrants will be requested for their arrests,” according to a news release from JNET at the time.
The investigation that led to Tuesday’s warrants started when citizens in Grays Harbor County reported possible illegal marijuana grows in the Elma area. After police in McCleary, Aberdeen and Hoquiam also received complaints, the Grays Harbor task force took over the investigation.
In the past four months, the task force learned suspects were buying homes for the purpose of setting up marijuana grows. Most were purchased with cash, and the purchases were conducted by “Chinese nationals involved in organized crime,” according to the Grays Harbor Sheriff’s Office.
“The proceeds from these illegal grows appear to be funding other criminal enterprises,” according to the sheriff’s office.
Shumate said investigations in other parts of the country have showed that organized criminal enterprises have brought groups of people from China to the western United States specifically to tend the illegal grows.
He said local investigators are still working to determine where all of the people arrested Tuesday were from, how they got here and where the profits from the massive grows were headed.
“Obviously that money is going somewhere,” Shumate said.
Investigators suspect the trail will head to the East Coast, he said, where marijuana’s street value is higher.
Of the 50 warrants executed, 38 were in Grays Harbor County, split between Hoquiam, Aberdeen, Grayland, Ocean Shores, Cosmopolis, Montesano, Elma and McCleary addresses.
Eight warrants were served in Bellevue, Kent and Medina in King County, and four were served in Olympia and Lacey.
The grows not only had no valid state licenses, but in some cases were set up in areas off limits to legal grows, such as houses near schools, according to the Grays Harbor Sheriff’s Office.
“There is a tremendous amount of work left to do for this massive investigation,” states a press release issued Wednesday from the sheriff’s office. “We again want to thank all of our federal, state and local partners who assisted with this significant operation.”