7 dead in large-scale California marijuana operation

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AGUANGA, California. – An illegal marijuana grow op where seven people were fatally shot in a small rural Southern California town bore the scars of organized crime, authorities said Tuesday. More than 20 people lived on the property, which had several makeshift housing, a nursery and vehicles used in production, Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said. Marijuana has been made into honey oil, a very potent concentrate obtained by extracting the highly inducing chemical THC from cannabis.

The seven victims and witnesses were Laotians, Bianco said. Six people were found dead on the property, and a woman who was shot there later died in a hospital.

“It was not a small operation,” said Bianco. “This is a very organized criminal type operation. ”

Illegal crops are common in and around Aguanga, a one-stop-sign town of about 2,000 people north of San Diego with horse ranches along dirt roads. Still, the scale of the Labor Day massacre stunned residents and showed just how violence permeates the illegal California marijuana market.

The state broadly legalized the sales of recreational marijuana in January 2018. But the illicit market is booming – in part because heavy legal taxes on marijuana are driving consumers to seek better deals in the market. illegal economy.

Before dawn on Monday, Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputies responded to a 911 call for an assault with a deadly weapon and shots fired at Aguanga’s house.

Investigators seized more than 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms) of marijuana and several hundred marijuana plants.

Although there were no arrests or identified suspects, the sheriff’s statement called the deaths an “isolated incident” that did not threaten people in Aguanga.

Partially eaten pizzas lay in boxes in a circular dirt driveway of the dilapidated two-bedroom house where the shooting took place. Three cars were parked outside – one with its front doors open.

Crates of bottled water were stacked on the porch, which was littered with clothes and plastic bags. A black tarp was stretched over the top of posts in the fenced back yard, indicating a small growing operation. Unlike many neighboring houses, there was no door or no trespassing sign at the entrance.

Reached by phone, owner Ronald McKay expressed surprise, saying he was unaware that a shooting had taken place in one of the rentals, a mobile home and the house.

He said he tried to go on Monday to check the well in the recent heat wave, but was turned away by an MP who wouldn’t tell him what was going on. He said he left his phone number, but authorities never called.

McKay said he didn’t know the tenants or their names – the rentals are managed by someone who works with him. But he said the house had been rented for three years and the mobile home for two without incident.

“I’m not aware of anything right now,” McKay said. “For two and three years, they’ve been there – perfect. Never had a problem. ”

Aguanga, with its post office, general store, and real estate brokerage, is in an area dotted with vineyards and horse ranches that have given it some traction as a weekend getaway for southerners. from California. It’s near Temecula, a bedroom community for San Diego and Los Angeles.

In February, MPs seized more than 9,900 plants and collected 411 pounds (186 kilograms) of processed marijuana and firearms from suspected illegal marijuana sites in the Aguanga region. Four people were arrested.

Police surveillance in the area has spawned nicknames such as “Marijuana Mondays,” “Weed Wednesdays,” and “THC Thursdays,” said Mike Reed, real estate broker and 28-year-old resident of Aguanga.

Reed said he does real estate business with pot growers – some of whom live in his gated community.

Residents are moving to Aguanga for “peace and solitude,” Reed said. “People live here because it’s not in town. ”

Aguanga’s isolation, however, may have made her vulnerable to the illegal sales and cultivation of marijuana. The sheriff said almost all marijuana operations in mountainous communities were illegal.

Adam Spiker, executive director of the Southern California Coalition, a cannabis industry group, said the shootings were a reminder that the sprawling illegal market remains largely unchecked.

“Shame on all of us: it looks like we have one foot and another on regulating this industry,” Spiker said.

Many California communities have not established legal marijuana markets or have banned commercial marijuana activity. Law enforcement agencies have been unable to keep pace with illicit growth operations.

“This risk is inherent in the underground market,” said Los Angeles marijuana dispensary owner Jerred Kiloh, who heads the United Cannabis Business Association, an industry group. “When you have money and high returns, people want to take it from you. ”

Kiloh said most illicit crimes in the market go unreported because farmers who have been robbed cannot turn to authorities.

Laotian involvement in the illegal marijuana harvest has grown over the past decade in the agricultural heartland of California. People from the relatively small community account for much of the pot culture in the backyards and on prime farmland.

Large cannabis grow operations typically have hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of product at each location, making them attractive targets for criminals.

“This is why the violence is getting worse and worse,” Kiloh said.

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Blood brought from Los Angeles. Associated Press writer Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles contributed.

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