California Weed

Illegal marijuana, violent crimes grow in Sacramento neighborhoods

Federal task force special agent David with marijuana plants at a marijuana grow site reclaimed by illegal marijuana growers at a plot of land off Interstate 5 and the Twin Cities exit on August 30, 2013.
Federal task force special agent David with marijuana plants at a marijuana grow site reclaimed by illegal marijuana growers at a plot of land off Interstate 5 and the Twin Cities exit on August 30, 2013.

Dozens of soil pots were dumped in the yard, while industrial-grade lighting fixtures dangled from the ceiling of the kitchen.

This was the scene at a home on Mandy Drive last week, as contractors – donning facial masks – cleaned up what was left of an illegal marijuana grow that had hundreds of plants.

The house was one of two on the street being used to raise marijuana. While neighbors had their suspicions, their thoughts weren’t confirmed until Sacramento police raided the home in February after police found the body of 36-year-old Mao Ren inside. Investigators say his death was not a random act. Police arrested a 16-year-old male in the case and are looking for more suspects.

The homicide is part of a troubling trend, say authorities, as more illegal grows proliferate in residential neighborhoods.

“These marijuana grows have invited other crimes to occur,” said Sgt. Bryce Heinlein, a Sacramento police spokesman. “It’s a cash crop. People know there’s money involved. Criminals take advantage of that.”

Sgt. Sal Robles, who is part of the impact division of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department that targets narcotics-related crimes, described the operations as crime magnets.

“The people tending the indoor grows have been shot, beat up and killed,” he said.

While law enforcement can’t pinpoint the exact number of marijuana-related crimes because of the way such incidents are classified, they note that the amount of pot seized from illegal grows has increased steadily over the past few years.

Sacramento police destroyed 1,019 pounds of marijuana in 2013. That figure slightly doubled in 2014 to 2,334 pounds. Last year, police seized over 6,000 pounds. Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Department – which helps conduct raids in the city – destroyed 112,078 plants in 2015, equal to roughly 70,000 pounds, according to Robles.

Each pound is valued at $1,000 to $2,000, Robles said.

Neighbors said what appeared to be two families moved into the homes on Mandy Drive late last year, but they never appeared to live there. They soon transformed the residences into fortresses, adding steel fences, bars on windows and a collection of surveillance cameras. The neighbors declined to talk on record, for fear of retaliation because suspects are still at large.

Without the public’s help, officials say it is difficult for law enforcement to track down these illegal facilities because probable cause must be established before investigators can obtain a search warrant.

“The need for a warrant slows the process down,” Robles said.

Even when residents report a suspicious home, authorities must go through the painstaking process of notifying the occupants and waiting weeks before taking enforcement action. Under a 2014 ordinance passed by the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, those living in unincorporated areas are legally entitled to cultivate up to nine plants of medical marijuana per house.

Cities within the county restrict indoor growth to specific square-footage limits rather than plant numbers, such as 25 square feet in Rancho Cordova to 400 square feet in Sacramento. Outdoor growth is banned in the county.

Robles described the marijuana-grow operations as disasters waiting to happen, noting that many of the homes are fire-prone because growers intentionally evade the electricity meter to stay under the radar. Plenty of electricity is used, as the industrial-grade commercial lights simulate outside environments and drip irrigation systems keep the plants hydrated.

Nate Bradley, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association, agrees that illegal grows give the industry a bad name.

Calling marijuana cultivation the “Wild West,” Bradley said the government needs to clamp down with tighter rules that would prevent the “unregulated market” from existing. For instance, he would like to see zoning laws that would relegate marijuana grows to industrial areas, rather than residential neighborhoods.

“The types of people running these operations are those who run the underground market,” said Bradley, a former Sutter County police officer. “Criminals will attract other criminals.”

Richard Chang: 916-321-1018, @RichardYChang