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.
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.
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.
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.
That snitch wasn't the operation's only problem: Several local politicians, prosecutors associated with the case and at least one North Metro officer have relationships with Tang — or his money. Some officials close to the case were beginning to wonder if Tang would ever be charged. And now that he has been, they worry that he will get little more than a slap on the wrist.
"I think I share the feeling of most of the law-enforcement community in that we are disappointed that Dan Tang wasn't charged with more crimes than just money laundering," says Federal Heights police chief Les Acker, a member of the board of governors that oversees North Metro. "That seems kind of weak. From all the stuff that was reported to us, it seems like there should be more charges than that."
The homes on Raspberry Drive, Ivy Street, Bluegrass Street and Eagle Butte Avenue had well-manicured lawns, spacious attached garages and clean brick facades — just like thousands of other suburban ranch homes populating the surrounding subdivisions.
None of them looked at all suspicious, and certainly not like a stereotypical "drug house."
That's what Joyce was thinking in August 2007 as he watched these houses from the secrecy of a parked, unmarked police car. He was chasing a tip from an individual who'd recently walked in unannounced to the Northglenn Police Department with a story to tell: Six Chinese men, all brothers involved with a local restaurant, were using these houses to grow large amounts of marijuana.
It wasn't much to go on. A tip like this would take serious time and effort to verify, and could have easily been lost in the shuffle — that is, if it hadn't fallen into the hands of someone like Joyce. Wickedly intense, he was the sort of officer who'd follow the lead till its end, knowing all the while it could turn out to be nothing. That's the way he operated: Everything had to be accounted for, from each properly arranged item on his spotless office desk to every random tip he was assigned.
"It's a personality thing for me," he told Westword last spring when he was still allowed by his supervisors to talk about the case. "I wasn't going to let a tip go uninvestigated."
Whether dedication or bull-headedness, it was a personality quirk that had worked out well. Years before, it had led the athletic kid from Black Hawk to take a job with the Northglenn Police Department. And in January 2007, five months before this tip had come in, it had helped him land a choice assignment on the North Metro Task Force.
Local law-enforcement agencies pooled officers and resources in task forces so that they could tackle long-term, large-scale drug investigations that would be difficult for a single jurisdiction to handle. And North Metro, which comprised fifteen investigators from Adams County, Brighton, Broomfield, Commerce City, Federal Heights, Northglenn, Thornton and Westminster, plus three sergeants and one commander, was considered one of the best around.
The squad has made headlines over the past few years for aggressively tackling the meth-house problem as well as developing model safety standards for meth raids. "As cliche as it sounds, I've always wanted to do investigations and undercover work," Joyce said last year. "I do what I do because I enjoy my job."
As he studied the houses on the pleasantly named streets, he realized his job was about to get a little more interesting. All he'd been given by the source was a couple of license plate numbers and the names and nicknames of some of the suspects. But by checking the vehicle registration info, he'd come up with another location — one of these ranch homes — and when he'd scoped out that house, he'd found a vehicle that was linked to another suspect named by the source. Through vehicle, wage and property records, plus additional interviews with his source, Joyce identified a network of houses, vehicles and suspects in Thornton, Frederick, Firestone and Henderson. Almost all the homes had a curious similarity: They were ranch style, with attached garages. It didn't take Joyce long to figure out why. Wider, longer homes offer the biggest basements.
Joyce eventually got a peek inside them: The confidential source, who had ties to the people running the homes, arranged to tour one of them while wearing a hidden camera. The camera captured a basement outfitted with tens of thousands of dollars' worth of equipment. Grow lights and ventilation pipes dangled from the ceiling, reflective aluminum siding stretched across the walls, and a tangle of irrigation pumps, filters, barrels and tubes snaked around the cellar.
The growers had even found a way to power this high-voltage equipment without catching the attention of the utility company. They'd jackhammered through the basement wall, spliced into the company's main electrical line and rewired it so that their usage wouldn't show up on their electric meter, the source said.
It was all for the benefit of what lay on the basement floor: In dirt-filled planters stretching from wall to wall, hundreds and hundreds of marijuana plants swayed in the breeze of an oscillating fan. Up to that point, Joyce had considered a 250-plant bust a considerable indoor marijuana grow. Now he was looking at an operation that could produce four harvests a year of 800 plants each — an estimated 3,200 plants annually, with each plant producing between $1,000 and $2,000 worth of finished product.
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.
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.
North Metro investigators believe Tang relied on that business acumen to run the grow house ring, too. In the Adams County affidavit, they speculate that the organization encompassed an intricate hierarchy of low-level farmers, mid-level dealers and upper-level financiers that may have been spread out over a hundred homes.
"It became clear this was a really large-scale operation, and it was going to take more than just myself and North Metro Task Force to get it done right," Joyce said last spring. "We couldn't keep up with the pace of the homes the organization was producing."
So in September 2007, the task force joined forces with the DEA, which gave it access to GPS tracking devices, hidden surveillance cameras, contacts with IRS and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and, most important, wiretaps.
On January 24, 2008, U.S. District Court Judge Lewis T. Babcock signed off on a request to wiretap a cell phone used by a suspected major player in the organization. On February 12, three more wiretaps went up, all of which were supposed to help officers learn about additional grow houses, track the money and discover who else was in the operation's inner circle.
They never got to do any of this. Two days later, Joyce got an unexpected call from the DEA's wiretap room. Investigators listening in on the phones with the help of interpreters had heard operatives sound the alarm. Shut down the operation, suspects ordered their associates.
The Dan Tang Organization knew it was being watched.
This is the biggest grow house I've ever seen." That's what DEA agents and North Metro officers kept saying over their radios as they raided one grow house after another on February 16, 2008. Charging through front doors and threading their way into basements, they came face to face with mind-boggling jungles of marijuana foliage.
In one house, on Spruce Street in Thornton, investigators found 979 plants. In another, on Ivy Street, they found 1,036. But those paled in comparison to East 151st Place in Brighton, which was jam-packed with 2,054 plants.
The dragnet stretched through the night and into the next day, since investigators knew they were racing against the clock. In one basement, they found dozens of recently uprooted marijuana plants on the floor, a snapshot of a grow house in the midst of coming down. For the most part, the people they found in the houses were cooperative.
More raids were carried out over the following weeks as suspects began spilling the beans. What they said is detailed in the recently filed Adams County affidavit. Fayin Deng, the youngest brother, reported that he'd been generating $50,000 harvests from each of his grow houses every three months — and that he'd used profits to buy a $60,000 Porsche.
All told, law-enforcement officials raided or searched 38 houses and interviewed twenty suspects. They seized 1,315 electrical light ballasts, 1,488 high-powered lights, more than $600,000 in property, upward of $3 million in cash and more than 24,000 marijuana plants. The bust landed Colorado fourth in the nation for indoor marijuana-growing operations eradicated in 2008, and Joyce and his colleagues received the 2008 National Marijuana Eradication Team Award last December.
"It was chaotic and it was crazy, but it was perfectly orchestrated," Joyce said. "It was mind-boggling what we were able to accomplish."
But from the start of the raid, there were signs that Operation Fortune Cookie was starting to crumble.
Sergeant Carbone had already ruffled feathers by not moving up the raid schedule after the leak was discovered. "He didn't believe the operation would stop, because the folks that were involved were making too much money," says Dave Osborne, Carbone's lawyer. "He was of the opinion [the drug ring] would come back up sooner or later, and they would be able to continue the investigation."
But Carbone made another strange decision the night the raid finally went down, according to a North Metro investigator who helped coordinate the action. As preparations unfolded, the investigator says, Carbone ordered a team of officers assigned to watch Tang's house to stand down since they didn't have a search warrant for it. Officers scratched their heads at this: Tang was considered the operation's head honcho, after all. Just to be safe, someone had a couple of officers watch Tang's house anyway.
That turned out to be a smart move. "Literally half an hour before everybody started rolling, Dan Tang just took a huge bag out of his house and threw it in his pickup truck and took off," says this investigator. He didn't get very far. Pulled over on the side of the road, Tang allowed police to search his bag, which was filled with $320,000 in cash — an amount later confirmed in court documents. Tang was then taken to a house at 12155 Adams Street in Thornton, which Carbone and other officers had just raided, according to the source.
Carbone disputes this account, however. "He doesn't recollect telling anybody that they shouldn't be watching Dan Tang's house. Even at this point, the DEA was calling the shots," says Osborne, Carbone's lawyer. Tang went to the Adams Street house with the money in his truck of his own volition, Osborne says.
Once there, Tang explained to police that he'd been holding the money for his brother Fayin Deng and Deng's wife, Kelly Chuong, according to a U.S. District Court criminal complaint filed against Deng and Chuong. Tang said the couple had been giving him proceeds from the drug operation in $50,000 increments so that the three of them could finance the purchase of a strip mall in northern Colorado.
Tang elaborated on his involvement in a February 27, 2008, police interview, according to the Adams County affidavit. In it, he admits to financing grow houses since April 2007 by lending hundreds of thousands of dollars to his brothers and their associates. He also says he provided false employment records at his restaurant for several drug ring members, held large sums of money for his colleagues and received considerable profits for his help.
Sources close to the case say they made another discovery during the Adams Street encounter with Tang, one not mentioned in court documents: According to a witness who was there, Tang embraced Carbone and said, "Dante, I'm so scared."
"That was big," says the North Metro investigator. "We all said, 'What just happened?'" Up to that point, sources say, Carbone had never suggested to his North Metro colleagues that he knew one of the main targets in the investigation he was helping to supervise.
Osborne disputes the claim that Tang embraced Carbone, but acknowledges that the two men know each other and that Carbone has been a frequent customer at Tang's restaurant for more than twenty years. "It's a common lunch spot for Thornton PD officers and detectives," he says. "And when officers would come in, Dan Tang would make a point of greeting them." Osborne also says that Carbone had told North Metro investigators, the DEA and the U.S. Attorney's Office many times that "he was a customer at the restaurant and knew Dan Tang from the restaurant."
When Tang greeted Carbone at the Adams Street house, Osborne says, Carbone told him, "You're in a whole lot of trouble" and later handcuffed him.
Asked about his connection with Carbone, Tang told Westword that he wouldn't consider them friends, but acknowledged, "I know him. He's eaten here before." Tang referred all other questions about the case to attorney Gene Ciancio, who declined to provide additional information except to call last week's charge against Tang "the first step to getting to the truth."
On the night of the raid, there wasn't much time to consider the relationship between Tang and Carbone, however. Soon everyone was distracted by another bombshell, one coming from DEA agents raiding a nearby apartment on York Street.
They'd found the tip-off letter.
The typed letter, folded in an envelope that looked like it had been addressed by someone writing with the wrong hand, was addressed to Dan Tang.
'I know what you're doing," read the anonymous letter, which was described to Westword by five sources close to the case. "You can, with assistance, avoid prosecution, deportation and seizure of all your assets."
To prove the letter wasn't a joke, its author described recent incidents involving certain suspects in the case — knowledge that seemed to come straight from the investigation's surveillance reports. The letter included a phone number Tang could call.
"I literally almost threw up on my shoes," says the North Metro investigator who helped coordinate the raids that night. "It was such a fucking cop. Everybody knew it."
Tang's past relationships with other Adams County law-enforcement officials and politicians associated with the task force were also beginning to make some North Metro members nervous.
On July 18, 2006, for example, election records show Tang donated $500 as well as meals for a fundraising luncheon for Adams County Sheriff Doug Darr, who happens to be a member of the board of governors that oversees North Metro. Darr says he gave the money back as soon as he heard that Tang was under investigation. "I was concerned," he says. "I am the county sheriff. I cannot be in a position where I would be associated with someone believed to be involved with a criminal enterprise."
Adams County District Attorney Don Quick donated money to Darr's campaign on the day of that event and attended another Heaven Dragon fundraiser, on September 14, 2007, for Adams County Commissioner W. R. "Skip" Fischer. This one took place several months after North Metro began its investigation — an awkward situation for Quick, as he's now prosecuting several of the Operation Fortune Cookie cases.
"I've been to Dan Tang's restaurant maybe five or six times," says Quick, adding that he didn't know about the investigation at the time of the fundraiser. "I didn't have any issues such as I was close to him or he was a friend or he was a campaign supporter." As soon as he did learn about the investigation, Quick says he directed his staff to stay away from Tang's restaurant.
The strangest connection involves former Thornton mayor Noel Busck, a current RTD boardmember and the first politician to be honored with a photo on Heaven Dragon's wall. Not long after the Fortune Cookie raids, Tang asked Busck to look after $400,000 for him, according to the May Adams County arrest affidavit, which notes that the former mayor held the money overnight before returning it.
"Mr. Tang has been my friend for twenty years," says Busck, who declined to say why he took the money. "In those twenty years, he has never shown me any indication of any wrongdoing or anything I would consider inappropriate."
Sometime after that, Busck says he got a call from Carbone, with whom he was familiar from his time as mayor. "Officer Carbone called me and said to me that I was not going to be charged with anything. And I thanked him and I hung up," Busck remembers.
Meanwhile, Carbone was meeting weekly and discussing the investigation with Assistant United States Attorney Wayne Campbell, who was assigned to develop a case against the drug ring. One of three sergeants serving on the task force, this was Carbone's second stint; he'd also been a supervisor there in the 1990s.
Campbell declined to discuss the leak, but says he's known Carbone "both professionally and personally" for eighteen years. Still, despite their weekly meetings, he says he didn't know Carbone was acquainted with Tang.
About two months after the bust, DEA agents showed up at North Metro headquarters in Thornton — but not to help with the Tang case. Having apparently cleared their own people of the leak, the agency had decided to investigate the task force members.
"They came into the task force and told us, 'You are all suspects,'" says one of the sources at North Metro. "They wanted to talk to all of us and wanted our cooperation."
The source wonders why an outside party such as the FBI wasn't conducting the inquiry, rather than an agency involved in the bust. The source also wonders why everyone at North Metro was allowed to continue working the case while they were being investigated for a potential confidentiality breach.
"The reaction was, 'Goddamn it, this is our place. Fuck no if someone is going to discredit our work,'" says the source, who cooperated with the DEA nevertheless. The ensuing investigation involved lengthy interviews, financial audits and polygraph tests.
"It was a very serious breach. I can tell you I have been in this chair for nineteen years now, and nothing has ever happened like this one," Campbell says.
The DEA eventually produced a lengthy report on its findings, a report that North Metro's board of governors — the chiefs of the seven police departments and Adams County Sheriff Darr — were given a chance to read at the DEA's Denver office one day last January. Only a few chose to do so, and none were allowed to keep a copy.
The fact that those who read it didn't take any action in response suggests there must not have been enough evidence to implicate anyone at North Metro, says Tom Gorman, director of the federal Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which oversees North Metro and other task forces in the region.
"In a situation where there appears to be a leak, let's say circumstances are such that it might look like one individual is involved," says Gorman. "But when you finish a very exhaustive investigation over a very long term, if I don't have enough to find somebody accountable, if I don't even have enough to take administrative action, you have to admit the evidence must be pretty circumstantial."
In April, the Broomfield City and County Attorney's Office, acting as legal counsel for North Metro, denied Westword's open-records request for the document on the grounds that it was "contrary to public interest" because it was a criminal justice record compiled for law enforcement. Last week, the U.S. Justice Department denied a similar request for the report.
"That investigation is ongoing; it is not closed," says Broomfield Chief of Police Tom Deland, speaking on behalf of North Metro. "We don't want to talk about that part of the investigation until it is all complete. They are all part of one investigation. The assumption is that when it is all wrapped up, the investigation will be made available."
But Sweetin, head of the Denver DEA office, says his agents have completed their investigation of North Metro. "The part that DEA did was really kind of an adjunct to the original case," he said in a January interview. "We have completed our investigation of that thread of this case."
For most of the past year, the result of the investigation into the grow house ring had seemed as uncertain as the internal search for the leak. In the weeks following the raids, only seven people were charged with crimes in U.S. District Court, a group that included Tang's brother Yue de Deng and his brother-in-law Xui Yun Li.
Those defendants could have faced five-year mandatory minimum sentences for cultivating 100 or more marijuana plants. But since the judges on the cases determined that the defendants met federal safety-valve provisions — such as being first-time offenders, not having used firearms and not being leaders in the operation — they imposed lesser sentences. Four of the defendants received prison terms of eighteen and thirty months, while a fifth got three years of probation. Yue de Deng got eighteen months and a $7,500 fine. A sixth defendant had all charges dropped, and the seventh is awaiting sentencing.
In October 2008, a federal grand jury indicted one other person, Eric Sen, who was charged with marijuana cultivation and money laundering. His case is pending.
Rumors started circulating that Tang might not be charged at all. Adams County DA Don Quick says his office passed on prosecuting Tang because he wanted to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. "We told the U.S. Attorney's Office that if they wanted some of them to go state, we would help them. I did tell them I wanted them to keep Dan Tang's case, because Tang has a lot of political connections in Adams County," he says.
"I didn't want to face all these accusations as to why he got this plea agreement or that plea agreement," he adds. "I didn't want to be in a position of, 'You gave Dan Tang this offer because of the folks he knows in Adams County.'"
Quick also says that Busck's involvement posed a problem because the two men are friends. "I told my folks that I didn't want the appearance that I was giving [Tang] a sweetheart deal," he says. "Noel was a real conflict for me, and Dan Tang was an appearance of conflict for me."
Operation Fortune Cookie, which had started with such a bang, seemed to be going out with a whimper. "I think it says that a lot of people can spend a lot of money and a lot of time accomplishing nothing," says Phillip Cherner, attorney for Fu Yin Deng, one of the four defendants sentenced to prison as a result of Operation Fortune Cookie.
By the end of 2008, six detectives had left North Metro; three more, including the task force's commander and Carbone, transferred back to their respective departments in January. Some left of their own volition, while supervisors pulled others.
"It leaves a very bad taste in my mouth," says one of the North Metro sources who spoke with Westword and asked to remain anonymous; none is still on the task force. "My biggest complaint is, everybody from the chiefs to the secretaries knew what was going on, and nobody did a goddamn thing."
It doesn't speak well for the once-lauded North Metro Task Force, says another of the sources: "It went from a prize regimen, probably the best in the state, to one with a dirty cloud around it that other task forces didn't want to be involved with."
Joyce, the man who'd launched the investigation, also left the task force — though he'd been told that if he did so, he'd be taken off of Operation Fortune Cookie.
"The best way I can put it is I left there because I chose to," he said in a November 2008 interview, before North Metro supervisors said he could no longer talk to the press because it might jeopardize the prosecution. "It was a matter of integrity. I felt I could not work with a person or persons down there for personal reasons."
In March, a federal grand jury indicted another suspect in the operation, Kim Chi Dang, alleging that he conspired to grow and sell 1,000 or more pot plants; Dang could face ten years in prison and a $4 million fine.
That case, and all other new federal cases associated with Operation Fortune Cookie, are no longer being handled by Wayne Campbell, the assistant U.S. attorney originally assigned to the investigation. Stephanie Podolak, head of the Colorado U.S. Attorney's Office Drug Task Force Section and Campbell's boss, is now handling prosecutions associated with the investigation. The U.S. Attorney's Office wouldn't comment on the reassignment, and Campbell says he doesn't believe it had anything to do with his work on the case. "That kind of thing often happens around here. They would go from one to another to another," he says. "I didn't take that as being very out of the ordinary."
In May, the Adams County District Attorney finally got involved in the action when the U.S. Attorney's Office transferred ten cases associated with the Dan Tang Organization to Quick. These individuals have been charged with money laundering, marijuana cultivation and distribution and other crimes. Weiyin Deng, the oldest Deng brother, is one of the defendants and faces all of those charges.
Also that month, Tang's youngest brother, Fayin Deng, was arrested and charged in U.S. District Court along with his wife, Kelly Chuong, and one other person for conspiring to manufacture or distribute 1,000 or more pot plants. The charges arose from a tip Broomfield police had received in April about another grow house. That tip was passed on to someone who knew more about this case than anybody: Detective Joyce, who was back working on Operation Fortune Cookie, as a Northglenn police officer rather than a task force member.
When police investigated the residence in question, on Cherrywood Street in Broomfield, they found 85 pot plants and considerable marijuana equipment. The property, it turned out, was listed to Fayin Deng, who at that point had yet to be charged with anything.
So while the DEA was looking for the leak at North Metro and cases against Tang and others languished, at least part of the Dan Tang Organization — run by the brother whom Tang had initially informed on — was continuing to operate.
Dressed in a suit and tie, Tang was silent as he listened to court proceedings on June 18 with the help of a Mandarin interpreter. He waived his right to a grand jury indictment and was charged by information. His only comment during the hearing was a brief "Yes, your honor" when asked by the judge if he understood what he was facing: a money-laundering charge and an asset-forfeiture allegation that would require Tang, if convicted, to relinquish all of his property, including $1.8 million that police have already seized.
While Tang could also be facing up to twenty years in prison, he's probably looking at a more lenient sentence, considering that he's a first-time offender. (Despite what the author of the tip-off letter suggested, Tang won't be looking at deportation: His lawyer points out that Tang is a U.S. citizen.) Also, since he wasn't charged with any drug-related offenses, unlike everyone else in the investigation, there's no minimum sentencing requirement for his crime.
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"He was charged with what we had evidence for," says Dorschner from the U.S. Attorney's Office. In other words, the police never found enough proof to tie Tang to the marijuana being handled by the Dan Tang Organization.
"It is my wish, and that of all the chiefs, that eventually the whole issue will be put to rest and the individual who was responsible for the leak is identified," says Brighton Chief of Police Clint Blackhurst, who serves on North Metro's board of governors. "I don't know how this leak occurred. If it was from law enforcement, I hope we are able to find out who it was and take care of it. I think it's a shame that this has become the focus of the investigation.
"All of the bad stuff, I think it's a crying shame."