A multimillion-dollar weed ring goes down -- and threatens to take a prominent restaurant owner with it

The bust was almost blown after an internal leak, and Dan Tang -- his Heaven Dragon Chinese food beloved local politicians -- was implicated.

On the evening of February 16, 2008, more than a hundred law-enforcement officers along the northern Front Range prepared for Operation Fortune Cookie, which would go down as the largest marijuana bust in Colorado history.

In the basement of Thornton Police Department headquarters, officers with the North Metro Task Force, an elite group of narcotics detectives, suited up for a long night of raids, strapping on bulletproof vests and ballistics helmets. They assembled evidence-collection kits specially designed for an operation of this magnitude, grabbing extra plant clippers and packing enough garbage bags to hold thousands of pot plants.

In the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Denver division, federal agents went through the same routine as reinforcements arrived from DEA offices in Colorado Springs and Cheyenne. And favors were called in at police departments and sheriff's offices in Adams County, Aurora, Brighton, Broomfield, Commerce City, Denver, Federal Heights, Firestone, Frederick, Lakewood, Northglenn, Thornton, Westminster and Weld County, requesting that everybody with a badge and a gun that Saturday night be ready to roll when called on for backup.

Dan Tang in 2004, with his photo of George Bush.
Dan Tang in 2004, with his photo of George Bush.
Weiyin Deng, one of six brothers, faces several marijuana-growing charges
Weiyin Deng, one of six brothers, faces several marijuana-growing charges

Details

Check out a map of the Operation Fortune Cookie raids and a followup on one of the former drug homes at blogs.westword.com/latestword.

North Metro Task Force detective Dan Joyce watched the battle preparations with mixed emotions. The young detective was the one who'd chased down a vague tip about a marijuana-growing ring and connected it to a clandestine network of indoor farms squirreled away in comfortable ranch houses smack in the middle of sleepy suburban subdivisions. Thanks to his work — months of surveillance, undercover drug deals and interviews with a confidential source — investigators had reason to believe that they were about to uncover pot plants worth hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, part of an operation they believed encompassed upwards of one hundred homes and involved more than fifty people.

Even more incredible was the identity of the supposed ringleader: Dan Tang, a well-connected campaign donor and restaurateur whose Chinese restaurant in Thornton, Heaven Dragon, was the frequent site of political fundraisers and had served mayors, senators, district attorneys and governors. In fact, on three visits to Colorado during his presidency, George W. Bush had asked that Tang personally deliver his Peking duck, crispy shrimp and other signature dishes.

But Joyce and his colleagues were sure Tang was cooking up more than sesame chicken. They'd pegged him as the operation's kingpin, going so far as to label the drug ring "The Dan Tang Organization" in the search warrants they'd use during the raids.

Now the organization was going down, but not as Joyce had hoped. Over the past few weeks, investigators had set up four wiretaps on suspects' phones, which they'd planned to use covertly for several more months. Instead, through those wiretaps they'd learned that the growers were dismantling their indoor farms and removing money from safety deposit boxes and bank accounts. Someone had sent the Dan Tang Organization a letter alerting them to the investigation — a letter that presumably only someone involved with the investigation could have written.

But for two days after learning there had been a leak, North Metro and the DEA had done nothing. Sergeant Dante Carbone, a Thornton police officer and a supervisor on the task force who had first taken the investigation to the DEA along with Joyce, said the tip-off letter was no reason to bust down the doors of the grow houses ahead of schedule.

It was a position that made no sense to Joyce and others. The evidence they needed was at that moment being removed; if they waited much longer, there wouldn't be anything left at all. So Joyce and his main collaborator on the investigation, DEA special agent Michael Marshall, had pleaded with other supervisors to let them move, and at noon that Saturday, they'd finally gotten the green light.

"We were handed a short fuse; there wasn't much time," Joyce would later say. And now, as Operation Fortune Cookie shifted into high gear, he hoped it wasn't too late.

It wasn't. Over the course of the massive bust, which stretched for two straight days and involved subsequent smaller raids, Operation Fortune Cookie netted more than 24,000 marijuana plants dispersed among 25 homes, along with $3 million in cash and more than $1 million worth of growing equipment.

The raids were vividly described in local newscasts and newspapers. "It's the largest, most organized indoor grow operation I have ever seen," Jeff Sweetin, special agent in charge of the Denver field division of the DEA, would later tell Westword.

Sixteen months later, on June 18, the U.S. District Attorney's Office finally charged Dan Tang with one count of money laundering in connection with the drug operation, a crime for which he may have to forfeit his restaurant — which is still running — and millions of dollars in assets.

Tang is the last person associated with the grow ring that the U.S. Attorney's Office plans to prosecute, says spokesman Jeff Dorschner; twenty other people have already been charged in state and federal courts with crimes ranging from marijuana cultivation and distribution to money laundering to fraud.

But the Tang announcement is bittersweet for the officers involved.

The team that launched Operation Fortune Cookie is now in tatters; half of the once-celebrated eighteen-member task force, including Joyce and Carbone, have left or been reassigned. The exodus came on the heels of a rancorous DEA investigation into the task force, its former crime-fighting partner, trying to find the source of the leak that forced Operation Fortune Cookie to move up the raid.

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