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

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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.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner