Eight Chinese-speaking defendants arrested Aug. 28 for allegedly cultivating marijuana illegally at several properties in Montezuma County appeared Wednesday before County Court Judge JenniLynn Everett Lawrence to hear the charges against them.
An interpreter from Denver, Rose Yan, was on a speaker phone to translate Lawrence’s instructions into Cantonese and Mandarin for the defendants, who have been released from jail on bond.
They are: Hoa Chu, Je Chu, Danny To, Daining He, Yong Tang, Chen Bocheng, Mai Luc (aka Maidong Dangluc) and Sang Teng.
Lawrence informed the defendants that they were each being charged with cultivating more than 30 plants, a Class 3 felony, and explained possible penalties if convicted. All the defendants were asked if they wanted a public defender or planned to hire a private attorney.
Every case was bound over to 22nd Judicial District Court for arraignment hearings Oct. 2 and will be handled by District Court Judge Todd Plewe.
The language barrier and Mandarin and Cantonese translations made the proceedings unusual and got the attention of court staff and audience members waiting for their cases.
Lawrence at first began calling each person individually to the stand, then decided to bring them all up at once, giving instructions to each defendant through the interpreter, who said she was strapped for time.
“He speaks Mandarin,” Lawrence said of one defendant, and the translator switched from Cantonese to the audibly distinctive Mandarin.
The defendants were dressed in street clothes and listened intently to the translator, then answered in Chinese. None spoke English.
Five of the eight defendants said they wanted to apply for a public defender, and Lawrence informed them that they would need to show proof of income to determine whether they qualified.
“I don’t have much income,” Daining He said through the translator.
The defendants were instructed to return to court on Sept. 12 to apply for a public defender. Lawrence instructed the interpreter to be present in person to assist them, and she said she would travel to Cortez to meet with them.
One defendant, who was thought to be Je Chu, said that was not his name when asked if he understood the charges against him and was presented with charging documents. He said he planned to hire a private lawyer.
The defendants were arrested as part of a multi-agency raid that seized marijuana plants at several properties in Montezuma County.
An estimated $500,000 in cash, 4,300 plants and 500 pounds of processed marijuana were seized, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.
The seized marijuana was worth millions of dollars on the black market, Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin said. The marijuana plants were destroyed by being buried somewhere in the county, he said. A Facebook video with Lt. Tyson Cox credited the Montezuma County Landfill for its assistance.
The raids were connected to a Chinese or Chinese-speaking drug ring that has been under investigation since a large bust in Rifle in 2016, said Steve Knight, resident agent in charge of the DEA office in Grand Junction. He declined to comment about the number of suspects and indicated last week that it was possible that not all suspects have been found.
The Cortez-area operation was considered to be the major supplier in a network that extended north to Rifle and east to Denver, Knight said.
The raids began Aug. 28 at 6 a.m. and involved outdoor growing operations north of Cortez, including a nearly 5-acre plot, Nowlin said.
Investigators reportedly were tipped off about the grow operation by neighbors who complained about smelling marijuana.