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Dan Tang and Operation Fortune Cookie: A primer on Colorado's largest -- and most unusual -- indoor weed bust

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With the sentencing of prominent restaurant owner Dan Tang this coming Wednesday, March 31, it seemed like the long, strange tale of Operation Fortune Cookie would finally be coming to an end. What started more than two and a half years ago as a vague police tip blossomed into the state's largest and most unusual indoor weed bust, then imploded among suspicions of law-enforcement snitches, reports of paid-off politicians and outcry over secret internal investigations.

And now there's a new chapter: Last Friday, the lead agent in the investigation and his law-enforcement colleague filed a lawsuit against their police departments, superiors and the drug task force on which they worked the case, alleging that they faced retaliation for speaking out about corruption.

The sordid tale has more twists and turns than a John le Carré novel. To keep it all straight, here's a handy timeline, complete with links to Westword coverage and relevant multimedia, of what's surely the state's most unusual weed bust.

1985: Dan Tang opens his restaurant Heaven Dragon in Thornton. He goes on to serve mayors, senators, governors -- and George W. Bush on three presidential visits.

2002: Denver International Airport police stop a man reportedly heading to Sacramento and find $52,000 taped to his ankles. The suspect said he works at Pearl Wok, a Broomfield restaurant registered under Tang's name with the secretary of state.

2002: An internal Thornton audit finds evidence that Heaven Dragon had underreported more than $500,000 in sales, for which it assesses a $38,800 penalty.

2005 or 2006: Two of Dan Tang's five brothers travel to Canada to learn how to become pot farmers, according to an arrest affidavit later filed in Adams County Court.

2006 and 2007: Law enforcement agents discover about 24,500 marijuana plants growing inside 51 suburban homes near Sacramento, California. Authorities say it was the work of a sophisticated Asian drug ring, and later court documents claim several of those involved who aren't busted move east to Colorado.

February 6, 2007: A highway patrol officer pulls over a U-Haul trailer outside of Salt Lake City, Utah and finds 600 marijuana seedlings and considerable grow equipment inside. The two men in the cab say they're coming from Sacramento and heading for Thornton, Colorado.

April 2007: Dan Tang is introduced to the idea of indoor marijuana grows by one of his brothers, according to DEA interview transcripts with Tang.

Spring 2007 to February 2008: Dozens of suburban ranch houses in and around Thornton are purchased and transformed into clandestine grow operations. Several of the owners are Tang's relatives or formerly worked at Heaven Dragon. Eighteen of the houses are purchased with the help of a former Heaven Dragon cook turned realtor.

2007: A Thornton revenue analysis later requested by investigators showed that Heaven Dragon's average monthly gross sales that year were $163,219, more than twice the average for similarly sized restaurants.

August 2007: Northglenn Detective Daniel Joyce, a member of the North Metro Task Force, follows up on a tip and uncovers a large-scale indoor marijuana grow ring he comes to believe is run by Tang and his family members.

September 2007: Because of the drug ring's extent, North Metro joins forces with the DEA on what's called internally "Operation Fortune Cookie."

January and February 2008: A judge signs off on a request to wiretap four cell phones used by suspected major players in the organization.

February 14, 2008: Investigators listening in on wiretaps learn that someone has sent a tip-off letter to Tang. That letter, which was later found, describes the investigation in vivid detail and includes a phone number Tang should call for more information.

February 15, 2008: Dante Carbone, a North Metro sergeant who was supervising Joyce on the investigation, downplays the letter and tells investigators they should not yet raid the grow houses.

February 16, 2008: Disregarding Carbone, Joyce and his colleagues launch a marathon, two-day raid much earlier than planned that involves more than a hundred law-enforcement officers and DEA agents. During the bust and subsequent smaller busts, Operation Fortune Cookie nets more than 24,000 marijuana plants dispersed among 25 homes, and millions in cash and equipment. (For a video of one of the raids, click here.)

February 16, 2008: During the one of the raids, Tang encounters Carbone and, according to a witness, embraces him. According to several North Metro investigators, that was the first time they were made aware that the sergeant had known Tang for several years.

Late February 2008: According to a confidential informant working with investigators, Tang tells grow-ring members to keep quiet about his involvement in the operation in exchange for Tang paying their legal expenses. The informant also tells investigators that a separate, larger portion of the grow ring hadn't been uncovered and was still operating.

Late February 2008: Tang gives roughly $400,000 for safe keeping to former Thornton mayor and current RTD vice-chairman Noel Busck and another $400,000 to Adams County Board of Education director Fred Schaefer. Both hold the money for short periods of time, but neither are ever charged with any crimes.

February and March 2008: Seven people are charged in U.S. District Court as part of the raids, including one of Tang's brothers and his brother-in-law.

Spring 2008: Carbone meets weekly with U.S. Attorney Wayne Campbell, the lead prosecutor assigned to the case. While the two are close personal friends, Campbell later tells Westword he was not aware at the time Carbone was acquainted with Tang.

April 2008: DEA launches an internal investigation of North Metro to uncover the source of the tip-off letter.

Spring 2008: Busck receives a phone call from Carbone to let the former mayor know he will not be charged with any crimes.

October 2008: A federal grand jury indicts an eighth person for his alleged involvement in the grow ring.

December 2008: Six of the task force's eighteen members have left or been taken off North Metro since the raids -- including Joyce.

December 2008: Joyce and his colleagues receive the 2008 National Marijuana Eradication Team Award from the U.S. drug czar for their work on Operation Fortune Cookie.

January 2009: Police chiefs in charge of North Metro are invited to DEA headquarters to read the results of the internal investigation -- but are not allowed to keep copies of it. Soon after, the task force's commander, Carbone and another sergeant transfer off the task force.

Early 2009: US Attorney Campbell is taken off Operation Fortune Cookie.

March 2009: A federal grand jury indicts a ninth person as part of the grow ring.

April 2009: Tang tells prosecutors he'd skimmed more than $500,000 in unreported income from his restaurant and used some of it to buy the Armadillo restaurant in Broomfield, an establishment that would later become Heaven Star.

April 2009: Responding to a tip, Broomfield police discover a grow house owned by Tang's youngest brother, who until that time had never been charged.

April 2009: Joyce and another former North Metro office, Thornton detective Robert Lopez, file formal complaints against their police departments and the task force based on their treatment during the internal DEA investigation. North Metro supervisors say the FBI has been asked to look into the matter.

May 2009: The Adams County District Attorney's office files charges against ten people believed to be associated with the drug ring, including Tang's oldest brother.

June 18, 2009: Tang is charged with one count of money laundering, the only one of 21 people charged in Operation Fortune Cookie to not face any drug charges. The U.S. Attorney's office announces the charge three days after being informed that Westword will be publishing an investigative story about Operation Fortune Cookie the following week.

Summer 2009: Several of the rehabilitated grow houses -- including one that was reportedly contaminated with mold during the raids -- are put up for sale in the $300,000 range. Some are bought without any knowledge of their previous use.

October 15, 2009: Westword publishes an analysis of several thousand pages of internal Operation Fortune Cookie documents that suggest investigators believed Tang had much more involvement in the drug ring than just money laundering.

November 20, 2009: Tang pleads guilty to the money-laundering charge in exchange for keeping Heaven Dragon and other concessions; the government will get to keep roughly $1 million already seized. Prosecutors recommend Tang receive eleven-to-thirty months of prison time or probation, considerably less than the seventy to 87 months indicated by sentencing guidelines.

March 19, 2010: Former North Metro investigators Joyce and Lopez file a federal lawsuit alleging they faced retaliation from their superiors for cooperating with the DEA internal investigation.

March 31, 2010: Tang is scheduled to be sentenced for his role in Operation Fortune Cookie.

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