An estimated $500,000 in cash, 4,300 plants and 500 pounds of processed marijuana were seized, according the Drug Enforcement Agency. The seized marijuana was worth millions of dollars on the black market, Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin said.
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 Tuesday 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.
Current suspects were booked into the Montezuma County Detention Center on Tuesday. They are: Hoa Chu, Je Chu, Danny To, Daining He, Yong Tang, Chen Bocheng, Maidong Dangluc and Sang Teng.
District Attorney Will Furse, of the 22nd Judicial District, said his office was contemplating charges of cultivating of marijuana more than 30 plants, a Class 3 felony. The suspects are scheduled to appear in court Sept. 5 for filing of charges in front of Montezuma County Court Judge JenniLynn Everett Lawrence. Cantonese and Mandarin language interpreters assisted the suspects by phone, according to court records, and public defenders were available.
The DEA, Colorado Bureau of Investigation, Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, Cortez Police Department, Colorado State Patrol and Homeland Security Investigations took part in the investigation, officials said.
“It has mainly been a federal investigation going back to 2016,” Furse said.
The operation allegedly involved purchasing properties on the Western Slope to grow marijuana.
The raids began at 6 a.m. Tuesday and involved outdoor growing operations north of Cortez, including a nearly 5-acre plot, Nowlin said.
In a joint press release Friday evening that included Nowlin and Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane, District Attorney Will Furse, of the 22nd Judicial District, stated that allegations of large-scale marijuana cultivation and interstate distribution led to the multi-agency action. Five properties were searched, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
At one location, 14293 County Road 22 near Lewis-Arriola Cemetery, the seized marijuana filled at least two large dumpsters and had grown 1-5 feet tall. Three men were gotten out of bed about 6 a.m. Tuesday, arrested and jailed, a detective at the scene said. No one resisted arrest, he said, and about a dozen plainclothes officers were photographing, collecting and loading the plants into dumpsters.
A larger raid reportedly took place on County Road V, Knight said, and additional raids were reported in Cortez and on County Road K.3.
Investigators reportedly were tipped off about the grow operation by neighbors who complained about smelling marijuana.
The raided properties were connected to the Ocean Pearl Chinese Restaurant and Hong Kong Restaurant in Cortez, according to Knight and Montezuma County Assessor records.
21875 County Road V, a 5.6-acre property in Lewis, is owned by Jimmy Dang and Qi Yu Wu, and listed its mailing address as the Ocean Pearl Chinese Restaurant, at 300 E. Main St., in Cortez. The agricultural property was purchased for $139,000 in June 2014.14293 County Road 22, a 9-acre property in Dolores, is owned by Qi Yu Wu, and also listed the mailing address of the Ocean Pearl. The property was purchased for $232,500 in January 2016.21867 County Road V, a 4-acre property in Lewis, is owned by Jimmy Dang, also with the mailing address of the Ocean Pearl. It was purchased for $125,000 in November 2015.316 S. Chestnut St., a .33-acre residence in Cortez, is owned by Jimmy Dang and Qi Lin Wu, also with a mailing address of the Ocean Pearl. It was purchased for $206,500 in August 2011.24701 County Road K.3, a 3.6-acre property in Cortez, is owned by Sang B. Teng and Lan Z. Yang, with a mailing address of the Hong Kong Restaurant, 332 W. Main St. It was purchased for $168,000 in February 2017.According to the Montezuma County Assessor’s website, the Ocean Pearl was purchased for $195,000 in September 2010 by Jimmy Dang and Qi Lin Wu, and the Hong Kong was purchased for $99,000 by Lisa Yang.
The Rifle investigationThe raids were believed to be connected to a large seizure of marijuana plants in Rifle in 2016, DEA agent Knight said. Subsequent raids in that investigation were conducted near Grand Junction in 2017 and in Denver this year, resulting in the seizure of more than 7,000 plants, he said.
A central figure in the Rifle investigation was Rifle resident and restaurateur Heung Yu Wong, owner of the Thai Chili Bistro restaurant. According to county records, Wong and Choi Ling Ching bought a 47-acre property at 2519 County Road 210.
Agents from the DEA placed the property under surveillance, and on Sept. 19, a deputy pulled over a U-Haul moving truck loaded with marijuana. Eight men were arrested at the property, and 2,400 plants were seized.
Authorities reported that 14 Chinese nationals were arrested in the Rifle-area operation in 2016, but none were charged, according to The Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction. Then-District Attorney Sherry Caloia, of the 9th Judicial District, cited difficulties including not knowing what roles many of the suspects played, and the concern that some of them might have been trafficked workers not working there entirely by choice.
In a marijuana seizure on Sept. 23, a deputy reported that as he was driving in Fruitvale, he noticed the smell of marijuana coming from a Penske moving truck ahead of him, and he pulled it over for a speeding violation, The Daily Sentinel said. Deputies who searched the truck found 3,100 pounds of marijuana in 87 trash bags, the report said.
The truck driver, Sinh Chan Hoang of California, said he had received a call asking if he “wanted to do something for money.” He said he picked up the rental truck in Pleasant View and drove it to another location, where it was loaded.
Furse said Thursday that on a related note, the CBI has initiated a statewide task force to investigate potentially illegal black market and gray market marijuana grow operations, including in Montezuma County.
Trent Stephens and Jim Mimiaga contributed to this story.