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.

And this was just one basement. There were dozens more just like it.

Months earlier, on February 6, 2007, a highway patrol officer had pulled over a U-Haul trailer on a rugged stretch of highway east of Salt Lake City. What he found inside the truck warranted more than a traffic ticket for the two men in the cab: 600 marijuana seedlings and enough equipment to grow all these plants and more.

"These men were ready to raise these plants for a huge ongoing crop," a highway patrol spokesperson said then. The men were driving east from Sacramento — on their way to Thornton, Colorado, according to a news story.

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


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.

The DEA won't discuss the traffic stop, but sources close to Operation Fortune Cookie believe the men were probably involved with the Denver-area drug ring. Search warrants for Operation Fortune Cookie allege that its members were moving equipment from Sacramento to Colorado in rental trucks. And a forty-page arrest affidavit filed in Adams County Court in May against ten people associated with the grow ring describes a pot-fueled gold rush of sorts, with large numbers of people moving to Colorado to get in on the action.

This affidavit is very detailed. The grow ring took root, it says, when two of the six brothers described by Joyce's source went to Canada in 2005 or 2006 and returned as expert pot farmers. They then began recruiting everyone they knew through an extended family network of siblings, cousins, wives and sons. Many of these recruits came from Sacramento, where another marijuana ring had recently been busted.

To start their Colorado operation, drug-ring members started buying houses in the north metro area, riding the real-estate bubble and paying little or nothing down for $200,000 to $350,000 ranch homes, court records say. In Sacramento, the grow houses had been spotted because it was obvious that no one lived in them: Lawns weren't mowed, outdoor AC units weren't turned on, and nobody ever left for work. The operation here didn't make the same mistake. Instead, ring leaders hired women and elderly couples — some of whom worked at Chinese restaurants — to live in the upstairs floors of the grow houses and keep up appearances in the neighborhood.

When the grow houses began operating, everyone involved got a take. The homebuyers would be in line for about a third of the profits after mortgage and utility costs, with the other two-thirds split between those who'd arranged for the grow equipment and those who tended the crops, according to the affidavit.

With the resulting stash fetching between $2,000 and $4,000 a pound, Joyce's source detailed an undertaking awash in money. Stacks of bills five and eight inches thick. Boxes overflowing with tens of thousands of dollars. Members comparing six-figure monthly takes. Some of the proceeds were sent back to China via banks or Western Union or smuggled back in the clothes and luggage of China-bound drug ring members. Another portion was used to buy new grow houses.

According to the affidavit, Joyce's confidential source "identified a group of six Asian males, who were described as 'brothers,' and advised they, along with dozens of other people, were growing and distributing marijuana.... [The source] advised the brothers were the owners of several local Chinese restaurants and were the main players in the organization."

The affidavit goes on to list the siblings:

Weiyin Deng, the oldest, allegedly involved members of his family — and he's now facing charges in Adams County.

Yue de Deng, sentenced to an eighteen-month prison term and a $7,500 fine earlier this year, had been spotted using a FoodSaver vacuum sealer to package one-pound baggies of marijuana, according to the confidential source.

Fayin "Tom" Deng, the youngest, was said to have advertised the easy money he was making by showing off a backpack filled with $300,000; he has since been charged with marijuana cultivation in federal court.

Mingyin Deng was allegedly the "equipment man," one of the crew who'd reportedly learned to set up grow houses in Canada. Liang "Toby" Deng supposedly allowed his wife to recruit family members from Louisiana, but neither Mingyin nor Liang has been charged with any crimes.

And then there was the second oldest, the alleged moneyman: Dan Tang.

Well known and well regarded in Denver's northern suburbs, Tang, now 46, made a name for himself over the years both for his food and for his political might. The walls of his restaurant, Heaven Dragon, are festooned with photos of the myriad political elite who've stopped by for a bite or for a campaign contribution.

In addition to Bush, Governor Bill Ritter, former governor Bill Owens, Senator Mark Udall, senator-turned U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, former senator Wayne Allard, former U.S. representative Bob Shaffer, former New York mayor and Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani and many others on both sides of the political aisle have benefited from Tang's election-time generosity.

"I'm a middle-of-the-road guy," Tang explained in a 2004 Denver Post article. "It's best for business if you don't pick sides."

In the midst of his fourteen-hour work days at the restaurant, Tang has been known to regale customers with his rags-to-riches story. The impoverished childhood in southern China. The desperate escape to a Macau refugee camp while posing as an eighteen-year-old fisherman. The welfare-check existence when he emigrated to Los Angeles. The hopscotching from one Chinese restaurant job to another when he moved to Colorado, eventually earning enough to open Heaven Dragon. That endeavor, plus several other Chinese restaurants he opened in the metro area, proved so successful that Tang was able to help bring most of his family over from China, including his bride, Xiu Ying Li, and his five brothers.

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