Central Valley

Valley's pot gardens move to the indoors

They didn't look like multimillion-dollar homes -- just two new tract houses in northwest and southeast Fresno. But inside both, police found millions of dollars in potent marijuana -- and indications that a new way of growing it is catching on in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Indoor marijuana farms allow organized criminal groups to grow powerful new strains of the drug faster, more profitably and with less risk than an outdoor garden.

"You can harvest a crop every three months, and after a year, walk away with $1.5 million," said Robert Pennal of the state's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement.

This isn't like the 1980s, when there might be a plant or two growing under a light in a closet, police say.

Typically, no one lives in these homes, which are filled wall-to-wall with plants. Often, the homes are visited just a few times a week at odd hours by cultivators who keep a low profile and avoid neighbors.

It appears the growers are learning from organized crime groups in Canada's British Columbia, said Gordon Taylor, who oversees much of Northern and Central California for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In Canada, ethnic Vietnamese gangs use banks of growing lamps and other high-tech technology to produce "BC Bud," a strain of marijuana more than twice the strength of most street marijuana, he said.

In the summer of 2006, Taylor said, police began to notice the indoor farms popping up in the Sacramento area, where 21 homes converted to marijuana factories were found in a month. Stockton police soon discovered 20 more, and still others were discovered in Tracy and Modesto. The two homes uncovered in Fresno in late October of this year fit the pattern.

"It's as if someone took a page out of the BC Bud handbook," Taylor said.

Andy Lieng Jr., 39, who told investigators he and his wife Jenny Ha own the Fresno homes, faces federal charges and a minimum 10-year sentence if convicted in the case. He is being held in Fresno County Jail on a federal warrant.

The marijuana grown in the southwest Fresno home at 2482 S. Villa Ave. was found -- like many of the indoor farms are -- by firefighters.

Someone had bypassed the home's electricity meter to steal power. This is done so utility companies don't grow suspicious when a home uses thousands of dollars of power a month, according to Pennal. But as in the Villa home, it's often a shoddy wiring job that sparks an electrical fire.

Inside the home, Fresno County sheriff's deputies reported finding 862 marijuana plants, 28 1,000-watt growing lights, 10 fans, automatic timers and charcoal filters used so neighbors would not notice the smell of the pungent crop. The plants filled every room and even a closet. Growing lights were strung across the ceilings and plastic containers held the plants.

Neighbors don't remember seeing any occupants.

"We didn't think anybody lived there," said Mang Moua, who lives next door.

Michael A. Thomas Sr., who lives two doors down, remembers hearing popping as the electrical fire broke out. Like Moua, he didn't know who or what was inside.

"We were surprised more than anybody, what was found," he said.

After questioning, Lieng and Ha directed detectives to the northwest Fresno home at 5307 W. Donner Ave., where 973 other plants and growing equipment were found, according to the federal warrant.

While not commenting on the ongoing investigation into the Fresno cases, Taylor, of the DEA, said it's not uncommon for organized crime groups to purchase houses with no money down.

He said that the growing method is popular because plants can be harvested four times a year, as opposed to once annually for an outdoor farm. Authorities set the price of the drug at several thousand dollars a pound.

Growing indoors has other advantages, according to Taylor. The plants can't be seen by aerial surveillance, and there is no chance of them being spotted by passers-by. Opaque plastic covering over windows keeps light from escaping at night, and windows and doors are sealed with duct tape to prevent odor from escaping.

The cultivators adapt their routines to avoid detection, he said. Because it used to be a tell-tale sign if trash cans weren't put out regularly, now indoor growers make sure the bins are on the street weekly. Similarly, the homes used to have run-down lawns and gardens, but hired gardeners often provide regular service now.

Still, Taylor said, there are signs of an indoor farm in a neighborhood such as no one moving in when the home changes hands, someone who visits for one or two hours several times a week, and someone who pulls a cargo van into a garage and quickly closes the door.

Several criminal groups operate the indoor operations, Taylor said. In addition to the Vietnamese in British Columbia, the Bay Area farms were run by ethnic Chinese. In the southeastern United States, Cuban-American groups are involved.

Taylor said setting up indoor farms is not a victimless or low-priority crime.

Hydroponic growing techniques -- where plants are grown in nutrient-rich material -- can deliver high potency. He said BC Bud has 15% to 25% more potency than other marijuana.

"It's eight times more potent than the marijuana of the early 1970s," he said. "It's a much different drug, and more and more users are entering treatment than ever before."

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