A federal asset forfeiture claim of over 100 residences in and surrounding the Sacramento area associated with an international marijuana cultivation organization financed mainly out of the Fujian province of China includes 12 indoor cannabis grow houses busted in the Valley Springs area by the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office between November 2017 and February 2018.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, more than 500 federal agents — ranging from SWAT teams, interpreters, and armed personnel from the FBI and DEA — raided 74 Sacramento-area houses and two related business offices, said Department of Justice Public Information Officer Lauren Horwood.

Agents seized 61,050 marijuana plants, about 440 pounds of processed marijuana and 15 firearms.

Simultaneous to the raids, more than 100 houses in and surrounding the Sacramento region, including Calaveras, Placer, San Joaquin, El Dorado, Yuba, and Amador counties, were included in a civil forfeiture action to seize the properties from a suspected Chinese-based criminal organization.

A Department of Justice press release characterized the raids and subsequent legal effort, which originated in 2014, as “one of the largest residential forfeiture efforts in the nation’s history.”

Calaveras County, and especially the intertwined neighborhoods, residences and rural backcountry of Valley Springs, were of the greatest interest of all the outlying Sacramento areas to the indoor marijuana grow operations, Horwood said.

“Sacramento County has the most, but for a small county, Calaveras had quite a few,” she said, referencing “rural properties right inside of neighborhoods.”

Calaveras County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio said the criminal interest in Valley Springs for indoor marijuana grows was a calculated effort to “fly under the radar” while the county dealt with registrants for commercial cannabis cultivation in 2016.

“It’s very desirable for them because of the easy access and not a lot of residents around. They go more undetected than anything else,” DiBasilio said.

The greater Valley Springs area is a mixed residential and commercial locality off of Highway 26, and includes Rancho Calaveras, the Scenic Valley Ranchos, a portion of Highway 12 and borders New Hogan Dam.

According to the civil forfeiture complaint, many of the Valley Springs properties were purchased in the spring and summer of 2017 from individuals of Chinese descent from New York, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Elk Grove. These “straw owners,” or the legal owners of the property on behalf of another, disguised or hidden person, received funding that was traced to wire transfers originating in China.

“Were they able to do it for a while? Absolutely. But we still caught up to them,” Di Basilio said. “It’s the fact that we have been very diligent in going after these illegal growings as soon as we find out, and we are not letting up.”

In the 12 busts between November 2017 and February 2018, 9,741 marijuana plants, 148 pounds of processed marijuana and about $11,000 cash were seized.

In that time, the busts associated with the international criminal organization occurred on the 8900 block of Highway 49 in Mokelumne Hill on Nov. 13, 2017; the 3700 block of Dunn Road in Valley Springs on Nov. 16; the 3600 block of Delin Way in Valley Springs on Dec. 6; 11600 block of Milton Road in Valley Springs on Dec. 6; the 6300 block of Hironymous Way in Valley Springs on Dec. 12; the 8900 block and 8700 block of Greer Way in Valley Springs on Dec. 29; 8400 block of Baldwin Street in Valley Springs on Jan. 10; the 6100 block of Highway 26 in Valley Springs on January 11; the 6000 block of Amos Lane in Valley Springs on Jan. 31; and two locations on the 2800 block of Hoffman Drive in Valley Springs on Feb. 8.

DiBasilio said raids had already begun on indoor marijuana grows in Valley Springs before the Sheriff’s Office realized that the criminal organization incubating in the county was also under investigation by the Department of Justice.

Around December, he said, Sheriff’s Office investigators realized via a law enforcement information sharing program that “we were dealing with the same group of people” under investigation by the federal government, he said.

DiBasilio said no federal agents were directly involved in the raids in Calaveras County, but the Department of Justice “put all the pieces of the puzzle together” with the information provided by their partnering agencies.

Some of the Calaveras County locations had been registered as personal or caregiver grows before the investigation and raids, he added, and were rife with environmental hazards.

Five arrests were made at the locations and included Xiu Huang, 57, a woman from Sacramento, arrested on suspicion of keeping a place to sell a controlled substance and illegal marijuana cultivation, both felonies, on Jan. 11 on the 6000 block of Highway 26; Wenhai Yang, male, 52, and Xiugin Yang, female, 52, were both booked on suspicion of felonies keeping a place to sell a controlled substance and criminal conspiracy, and misdemeanor marijuana cultivation on Jan. 10 on the 8400 block of Baldwin Street; and Sian Huang, 28, was arrested and charged with maintaining a drug house, a felony, and misdemeanor illegal marijuana cultivation on Dec. 7 on the 10000 block of Milton Road.

“The people that we ended up dealing with were just the low-level workers. They were just there to maintain and water and trim and stuff,” DiBasilio said.

DiBasilio said the efforts marked a “big decrease” in the growing activity in the county, including factors like weather, which were hindering illegal outdoor grows. In 2018, another “Operation Terminus” was planned for a large scale eradication of marijuana, he said.

Horwood said the effort was planned not to go after individuals, but rather to cripple the assets owned by the criminal organization. The seized pot, which had planned destinations of New York, Pennsylvania and Georgia, would be destroyed.

The civil forfeiture was still under litigation she said, but after it went through the court system, it would become the property of the United States government and United States Marshals would auction off the homes.

Horwood would not confirm or deny if there were any suspects in California revealed by the raids.

“The U.S. attorney said stay tuned,” she said.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.

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