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

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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.

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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