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More pot house busts revealed

Times Staff Writers

Authorities revealed Tuesday that they had discovered four more pot houses in the San Gabriel Valley, bringing to at least a dozen the number of indoor marijuana farms found in a month.

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s investigators believe there might be dozens more in the area and are urging residents and city leaders to be more vigilant about spotting the homes.

Sheriff’s detectives admit they were taken by surprise by the sheer amount of pot seized so far -- more than 9,000 plants with a street value of more than $50 million.

All of the operations have similarities, utilizing sophisticated and expensive hydroponic growing equipment, including timers, artificial lighting devices, special ventilation and watering units.

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Most of the homes were literally hollowed out into the equivalent of huge greenhouses, with interior walls removed.

Investigators are focusing on whether the cases are tied to Asian organized crime, but they have yet to make a definitive link connecting all of the houses.

Four of the indoor farms were found in Rowland Heights residences and another three in Diamond Bar, where sheriff’s investigators Monday busted the latest indoor farm amid million-dollar homes, said Sheriff’s Lt. Joe Nunez.

Other harvesting centers have been uncovered in homes in Alhambra, Rosemead, Walnut, Pomona and Chino Hills, authorities said.

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Sheriff’s officials said that communities need to take a more aggressive stand against the grow houses now or face the possibility of increased crime in the very suburban neighborhoods that were seen as havens from crime.

“It’s not just a matter of marijuana being sold for profit,” said L.A. County Undersheriff Larry Waldie, who once served as mayor of Walnut, another upscale suburb next to Diamond Bar. “People have to protect the stuff with weapons, and [the homes] become a target for criminals.”

The problem has grown so serious, so quickly, Waldie said that he plans to bring up the issue next month when he meets with managers in the cities that contract with the Sheriff’s Department.

He said he wouldn’t be surprised if the problem locally is comparable to that in Northern California, where federal, state and local law enforcement authorities have raided and shut down 50 home farms since last year in Modesto, Stockton and Sacramento.

Those homes were tied by federal drug investigators to a Vietnamese crime ring based in San Francisco. L.A. County detectives don’t know if there is a connection with the San Gabriel Valley cases.

But the sophistication of the local operations suggests the owners knew what they were doing, they said.

“Whenever you have demand, there’s going to be supply,” Nunez said. “But in my years, I’ve never seen it this widespread.”

Although indoor plants yield less marijuana, a quarter pound versus a pound outdoors, criminals have found that homes are better hiding places from law enforcement or interlopers who might steal the crop.

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By using sophisticated growing equipment, which can cost upwards of $75,000, marijuana farmers can produce several crops annually, producing comparable yields to outdoor operations.

The number of indoor marijuana plants seized in California has nearly quadrupled in the last three years, from at least 54,000 plants to nearly 200,000 in 2006.

Nationwide, the number of seizures of indoor marijuana plants jumped from about 236,000 in 2001 to 401,000 last year.

But Frances Cummings, a retired special education teacher from the Phillips Ranch area of Pomona, said the way to reduce the number of so-called grow houses in the suburbs is to decriminalize marijuana.

“These are sophisticated businesses,” Cummings said.

“If marijuana was decriminalized, we could take it out of the neighborhoods.”

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andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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tony.barboza@latimes.com


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