At first, the three-bedroom ranch Mike and his family discovered while house-hunting in Thornton this summer seemed like the perfect spot. The price was right on the 2,200 square foot home, and it was situated in a nice neighborhood. After they put down an offer, the family nearly backed out when the seller revealed the property had suffered some mold damage. But Mike was reassured after he talked to the realtor and the contractor who'd cleaned up the mold.
"I felt comfortable that the mold problem had been handled," says Mike, who didn't want to give his last name. "When I asked the realtor about it, he said it was his understanding that the previous owner was growing peppers for a Chinese restaurant in the garage." So he and his wife went through with the deal this past July.
Now, however, Mike says if that he'd known the truth about the residence, he never would have bought it. He's since learned the home's previous occupants included 1,114 clandestine pot plants, part of the elaborate marijuana grow ring that was busted during Operation Fortune Cookie in 2008.
(To read more about the investigation, check out this week's feature story, "Tales of the Dragon.")
Mike first learned about his new home's criminal past from one of his new neighbors. Then he searched online and found his home mentioned in a June 2009 Westword story detailing the investigation. It became clear the prior occupants weren't growing peppers at all -- though the illegal "crops" they were growing in the basement did have a connection to Chinese restaurant, since the drug operation's alleged ringleader, Dan Tang, owns the prominent Thornton eatery Heaven Dragon.
Now other quirks of the house made sense to Mike. All the nails in the basement were rusted from significant condensation, for example, and the basement floor was covered in ring marks -- apparently from all the marijuana planters.
"Did the people I bought it from know about the grow house or not? That's the $64,000 question," says Mike. It's a question the previous owner, MarketPlace Realty, seems reluctant to answer; company president Matthew Sanchez did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
Legally, Sanchez's company probably didn't have to disclose the home's sordid history. That's according to Marcia Waters, investigations and compliance director for the Colorado Division of Real Estate, who spoke to Westword in June about several Fortune Cookie pot houses for sale at the time. While realtors do have to reveal environmental hazards and other "adverse material facts" about their properties (like the mold issue in Mike's house), there's no state rule requiring sellers to disclose marijuana grows like they do meth labs, said Waters.
"I would say that if a broker is aware that a house has been used for a marijuana grow operation, they should acknowledge it, but I don't think a lot of people recognize the negative impacts of having one of these operations in a residence," she added.
Massive, high-tech grow houses like those discovered in Operation Fortune Cookie are a relatively new U.S. phenomenon; as of yet, most people don't know much about their environmental dangers. But anonymous sources who assisted in Operation Fortune Cookie say several investigators became temporarily ill after raiding the chemically laden grows last year. What's more, a recent British Columbia study found that grow houses like those busted in Operation Fortune Cookie, which involved illegal rerouting of electrical lines, were 24 times more likely to catch fire than other properties.
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While Operation Fortune Cookie was the largest indoor pot bust in state history, it received relatively little media coverage. The investigation was marred by a suspected law enforcement leak and a subsequent rancorous internal audit of the police agency involved. Possibly because of this turmoil, officials largely kept mum about Operation Fortune Cookie -- including info about the 25 houses in the north metro area in which authorities found 24,000-plus marijuana plants.
That's why Mike, and possibly others who've purchased former grow houses associated with the marijuana ring, never thought to inquire about such matters before signing on the dotted line. Now Mike wishes he had.
"Not that there's been any issues with the house, but it would have been a deal breaker for me," he says. "I really don't need any headaches that might come along with it. Who knows, somebody could come by in the middle of the night thinking it's still the grow house. It's just inviting trouble."