Calaveras County Sheriff’s deputies on Tuesday broke up three illegal cannabis farms a few miles from downtown West Point, arrested 23 workers and used three county dump trucks to haul 7,700 pounds cannabis products and 1,048 plants to the county landfill.
By midday on Thursday, all but one of the arrested workers had posted bail, either by bond or in cash, and they were released. It took several days for jail staff to book all 23 alleged cannabis workers into the Calaveras County Jail on suspicion of felony cultivation of marijuana, possession of marijuana for sale and conspiracy to commit a crime.
Sheriff Rick DiBasilio estimated that the street value of the haul could exceed $1,000 per pound on the California market and $3,000 to $4,000 per pound on the East Coast. According to a Sheriff’s Office statement, investigators gathered between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds of cannabis that was processed and ready for use or sale. Additionally, several hundred pounds were discovered that were packaged for shipment.
Two of the eradication sites were on Argonaut Lane near Quartz Mountain Road, 2.7 miles by road from the West Point Community Hall. DiBaslio said the largest of the three sites was last eradicated by the Sheriff’s Office for three ago.
He said the site at 1360 Argonaut Lane in West Point was raided and cannabis products were eradicated in 2013, “but they came back.” According to Calaveras County Assessor’s office records, the owner of 1360 Argonaut Lane site is Thuyen Nguyen of Rock Creek Court in San Jose.
The 6.63-acre property was purchased in 2012 for $57,000. It has a 680-square-foot A-frame dwelling, a septic system and a well, according to county records.
Property owner Thuyen Nguyen was being interviewed by a Calaveras County Sheriff’s deputy on Tuesday when a reporter asked him whether he knew that what he was doing on his property was illegal. His response was a blank stare. When asked whether he knew about the environmental violations alleged by the Sheriff’s Office he said, “We don’t know anything about that.”
Nguyen said he has lived in San Jose for 33 years.
The second site was at 1423 Argonaut Lane in West Point and the Assessor’s Office lists three owners, all with a one-third interest in the property: Luu Saetern, Luu Ian Saevang and Chiew Louang Saetern, all of Sacramento. The property includes 6.49 acres of land and a 680-square-foot cabin. It was purchased on April 20 this year for $250,000.
The third property involved in the eradication operation is listed as 1715 Hidden Valley Road in West Point, owned since 1994 by Christine M. Moss of West Point. The property is described as 2.47 acres with a 448-square-foot cabin and wood stove heat. Purchase price is unknown.
DiBasilio said law enforcement officials found two of the farms by flying overhead in an aircraft. The 8 a.m. raid disturbed the cannabis workers at their breakfasts. They were rounded up and kept under guard at two of the sites and those at 1360 Argonaut Lane sat huddled under blankets and the plastic sheeting of a processing shed while they waited in a light rain to be transported to the Calaveras County Jail.
DiBasilio said property owners could face citations for environmental degradation, which would be processed as civil matters. He said the environmental violations were extreme.
“But I’d bet they will all be out on bail by the end of the day,” he said of the workers arrested at the farm. “They really don’t care. Their bail will probably be posted in cash.” DiBasilio said the arrests and eradication were “uneventful.” While some of the arrested workers appeared nervous or anxious, several were relaxed and smiling and no one was confrontational or aggressive. All responded calmly to processing questions by sheriff’s personnel.
By Tuesday afternoon, 10 of the 21workers booked into jail that day had been released on bail bonds and two posted bail in cash. The identity of the individuals or firms posting or paying bail remained unknown by midday Thursday.
Calaveras County District Attorney spokeswoman Kathy Duke said on Thursday that all but one of those arrested had posted bail. Long Van Huynh, 61, of Sibelius Avenue in San Jose remained in custody. Duke said it was unknown when an arraignment date would be set for Huynh.
DiBasilio said an investigation into the property’s owners and residences of the arrested workers suggest a connection to the San Jose area.
“And I think we will find connections to south Bay Area Asian gangs,” he said.
The investigation was the result of a three-week effort that led investigators to a residence in Milpitas where the Calaveras-grown Indica-strain cannabis was discovered. That turned the investigation back to Calaveras County and the three grow sites eradicated Tuesday.
“We served a search warrant in Milpitas and it is apparent that this is all tied together,” said DiBasilio.
The workers were living in a state of advanced squalor, with as many as eight beds crammed into a closet-sized room in one house and kitchen and hygiene facilities moved to the porches and an outside human waste facility. Every other square foot of the two residences through which media representatives were given tours was filled with marijuana processing racks and drying hangers.
In one drying shed on 1360 Argonaut Lane, drying cannabis was hung in racks packed so tightly that navigating the building took two people, one to hold the racks aside so the other could walk through. There were multiple layers of cannabis in the racks, each marked with the name of a particular strain.
The skunk-like scent of drying and processed product was strong, even from the Hidden Valley Road gate, nearly 50 yards from the production area.
Drying and processing areas filled the structures and sheds scattered throughout the properties.
DiBasilio said the farms also violated a number of environmental protection rules and codes. There was a pile of household garbage 3- to 4-feet high that stretched more than 10 yards. A pile of empty pesticide containers nearly six feet high covered another large area.
Trees were felled in one grow area – on a slope greater than 30 degrees – and left to decompose among graded areas used to grow cannabis. DiBasilio said the property owners had not applied for a grading permit.
DiBasilio said human waste and grey water were allowed to run out on the ground.