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Pot cultivation trial under way in Sacramento

Inside the little gray house, the video tour started in a bedroom where dozens of marijuana plants reached happily toward the brilliant artificial light powered by the purportedly stolen electricity.

Filters, fans, blowers, ballasts, vents, ducts, electrical cords, timers and silver umbrella light hoods all gave the place the look of a factory. It also could have been a nursery with the liquid fertilizers, the potting soil and the planters.

The camera rolled from room to room to show forests of bright green pot plants with their angular leaves growing greener by the minute at the indoor operation in the 1400 block of Atherton Street in the Freeport Manor neighborhood of Sacramento – until the tour ended in the living room, where a man named Yabao Lai sat calmly on a couch next to another man, with their hands cuffed behind their backs.

On Wednesday, a little more than seven months after the March 22 filming, Lai and six other defendants wore headsets that provided them with a Cantonese interpretation of what was going on in the Sacramento courtroom where they all sat. The seven of them were on trial for conspiracy to illegally cultivate marijuana, possession of marijuana for sale, straight cultivation and stealing electricity from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

It’s a case playing out in court like almost all of them have in recent years, as indoor grows continue to proliferate in plantations hidden inside the tracts of suburbia throughout the Sacramento area. As with most of the cases, a throng of Chinese nationals and their lawyers filled the defense tables in the trial in front of Superior Court Judge Ernest W. Sawtelle.

Lai, who is 54, is from Guangxi province in southern China. He arrived in Sacramento two years ago, according to his attorney, Alex Asterlin. He was poor, Asterlin said, but the rest of his circumstances are a mystery – who recruited him, how he got here, how he wound up in the house on Atherton Street, how much money he’s getting paid, how long he intended to stay.

“I think what happens in cases like this, you get people who come from China,” Asterlin said. “They don’t understand the American culture, they don’t understand the laws, and then they get used. Someone says, ‘Look, this is going to be OK.’ They’re put into these homes. They grow marijuana. They get the marijuana recommendation card, and to them, it’s absolutely legal. Here, you’ve got some culpable parties, but my client is here under the pretense that everything is going well, that he’s 100 percent legal.”

According to Deputy District Attorney Rochelle Beardsley’s trial brief and other court documents, Elk Grove Police Department detectives confiscated a total of 1,757 plants and about 25 pounds of processed pot from three houses that were the subject of an investigation earlier this year. The case also led them to a bank account in Baldwin Park that contained $42,000 in cash, and another in San Francisco with a little more than $14,000. They found $7,000 in cash in the house where Yabao Lai and Mu Yang Lai, 50, apparently had been employed as indoor field hands.

Beardsley’s trial brief said the police got into the case off a citizen’s tip. The informant told investigators about a suspected grow house in the 5700 block of Tall Grass Way in Elk Grove. Along with the address, the citizen gave detectives the license plates of two cars that spent some time at the house. The license plate on one of them was traced to San Francisco. The other came back to a house in the 100 block of Creekside Circle in the Parkway area of Sacramento.

Both the Tall Grass and Creekside houses showed high electrical usage “consistent with that of residences containing indoor marijuana grows,” the brief said. Detectives surreptitiously slapped GPS devices on the two vehicles. They tracked them to stops they made at Atherton Street, across Freeport Boulevard from Sacramento Executive Airport, and to another house on the 8300 block of Hardester Drive in unincorporated southeast Sacramento, in the Danbury Park area. Searches followed.

The electricity bill at Hardester was being paid by a woman who lived in Oakland by the name of Shunyi Chen, authorities said. Elk Grove detectives searched her house on 17th Avenue and found that in 2009 she had wired $5,000 to China. They also found that she had been making several cash withdrawals in sums that coincided with what it would cost to convert the Elk Grove and Sacramento houses into indoor pot farms.

Her Oakland attorney, John Bell, disputed the suggestions that Chen, 52, helped organize the Sacramento-area operation. The 2009 wire transfer, Bell noted in his questioning of one of the detectives Wednesday, took place four years before the pot investigation came to anybody’s mind.

The defense in the trial is likely to come down to the argument that at least six of the seven defendants, including Yabao Lai and Shunyi Chen, had medical marijuana recommendations. Under Proposition 215, the certificates allow each of them to grow as many as 99 plants and to individually keep up to 16 pounds of weed, the lawyers say. The DA says they still had more pot than the state’s Compassionate Use Act of 1996 allows.

Asterlin said his client “has a legitimate, recognized ailment, and marijuana is an effective treatment for it.” The question for his client is going to be “the understanding, the knowledge, the intent. He has a legally prescribed medical marijuana card. The biggest question is, can he understand it? Does he know what it allows him? How many other recommendations are there? But what these people are told, and by who, is the biggest question.”