Six of eight Chinese-speaking defendants arrested in a Montezuma County raid Aug. 28 for allegedly growing too many marijuana plants appeared Tuesday in front of District Court Judge Todd Plewe for arraignment.
Hoa Chu, Danny To, Daining He, Yong Tang, Chen Bocheng, and Mai Luc are all out on bond and had legal representation during the proceedings. They each face a charge of cultivating more than 30 marijuana plants, a Class 3 felony.
An interpreter from Denver, Rose Yan, was on speaker phone to translate the court proceedings into Cantonese for the defendants.
Plewe informed the suspects of the charges and read them their rights. None of the defendants entered pleas, and all were scheduled for a disposition hearing for Nov. 15 or Nov. 26.
At disposition, the defendants can enter a plea, decide to go to trial or be presented with a plea deal if the district attorney so chooses.
While on his way to his arraignment at Montezuma County Combined Courts, one defendant, Sang Teng, was arrested by Montezuma County deputies on a federal charge related to the case, said District Attorney Will Furse. Teng has been indicted by a grand jury and faces a federal charge for his alleged involvement in the marijuana operation.
The U.S. attorney’s office has not released details about its case against Teng. Because of the federal indictment, Plewe dismissed the state charge against Teng at Furse’s request.
Another defendant, Je Chu, failed to appear for his arraignment, and Plewe issued a bench warrant for his arrest and ordered that bond be set at $3,000.
The defendants were arrested as part of a multi-agency operation at several properties in Montezuma County that seized an estimated $500,000 in cash, 4,300 plants and 500 pounds of processed marijuana, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.
The raids were connected to a Chinese or Chinese-speaking ring that has been under investigation since a large marijuana bust in Rifle in 2016, said Steve Knight, resident agent in charge of the DEA office in Grand Junction.
During the hour-and-half arraignment hearing, defendants responded through the translator that they understood their rights, charges and potential penalties.
Plewe explained who their lawyers were, and the attorney-client privilege system. He instructed them on several occasions that if something was not clear, they were to inform their attorneys or the judge.
“I will be very patient, and if you don’t understand something, I will not get upset or hold it against you,” Plewe said during the advisement of rights. “We realize there is a language barrier, and we will do the best we can to make sure you understand your rights and are being treated fairly under the laws of Colorado and the U.S. Constitution.”
The proceedings were complicated by the language barrier, and the defendants often asked for clarification from Plewe, their attorneys and the interpreter.
Daining said he spoke a different dialect than Cantonese and was having trouble, but later affirmed he did understand the Cantonese translation. Two defendants said they had a limited education and struggled to comprehend the proceeding or remember instructions. But after additional explanation, they indicated they understood.
To, Daining, Luc and Tang requested permission to move or travel to California while their Colorado case was pending. Plewe granted their requests on the condition they surrender their passports within seven days and waive their right to contest extradition.
The raided properties in the marijuana bust were connected to the Ocean Pearl Chinese Restaurant or Hong Kong Restaurant in Cortez, according to Knight and Montezuma County Assessor records.
Teng and Lan Z. Yang were the listed owners of the raided property at 24710 County Road K.3, according to the assessor’s database. The database listed the owners’ mailing address as 332 W. Main St., the location of the Hong Kong Restaurant. The Road K.3 property was purchased for $168,000 in February 2017.
In Colorado, it’s legal for citizens age 21 and over to possess and cultivate a limited amount of marijuana. Furse said black market marijuana operations that go beyond the allowable amounts are on the radar for local and state prosecutors and law enforcement officials.
“It is a significant problem. There is particular concern that illegal operations are providing marijuana out of state,” Furse said. “Distribution across state lines gets the attention of law enforcement.”