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Illegal California marijuana farm where seven people were shot dead

An illegal marijuana growing operation where seven people were fatally shot in a small, rural Southern California town had the markings of organized crime, authorities said Tuesday.

More than 20 people lived on the property in Aguanga, which had several makeshift dwellings, a nursery and vehicles used in production, Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said. 

Investigators seized more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana and several hundred marijuana plants from the residence, believed to hold a street value of up to $5 million. The marijuana was being processed to honey oil, a highly potent concentrate made by extracting the high-inducing chemical THC from cannabis.

The seven shooting victims, none of whom have been identified, were Laotian nationals. They were found dead ‘in and around’ one of the dwellings. 

‘This was not a small operation,’ Bianco said. ‘This is a very organized-crime type of an operation.’

An illegal marijuana growing operation where seven people were fatally shot in a small, rural Southern California town had the markings of organized crime, authorities said Tuesday

An illegal marijuana growing operation where seven people were fatally shot in a small, rural Southern California town had the markings of organized crime, authorities said Tuesday

More than 20 people lived on the property, which had several makeshift dwellings, a nursery and vehicles used in production

More than 20 people lived on the property, which had several makeshift dwellings, a nursery and vehicles used in production

What appears to be a makeshift greenhouse is seen behind a home where killings occurred

What appears to be a makeshift greenhouse is seen behind a home where killings occurred

Before dawn Monday, Riverside County sheriff’s deputies responded to a 911 call of an assault with a deadly weapon and shots fired at the Aguanga home, in the 45000 block of Highway 37.

Upon entering the home, deputies discovered a woman with severe gunshot wounds. 

A search of the residence revealed six additional victims, who had also suffered gunshot wounds. They were all pronounced dead at the scene.

The woman, meanwhile, was taken to hospital but, ‘despite life-saving efforts’, died shortly after arriving, police said.

A search of the area failed to immediately locate suspects. The motive for the killings remains unclear.

Sheriff Chad Bianco said at a news conference on Tuesday that the illegal marijuana trade remains a constant and deadly menace, even as the state has legalized recreational marijuana. 

‘Marijuana is not a victimless crime,’ he said. ‘These illegal operations are extremely dangerous. Can you imagine if this had happened in a populated city where children were next door?’

So far this year, the sheriff’s office has responded to eight incidents in Riverside County with a total of 14 murder victims ‘dealing strictly with marijuana,’ he said.

Sheriff Bianco offered few details about the most recent case. ‘We believe at this time that there were multiple suspects,’ he said. 

‘We are still processing the scene, we are still processing our witnesses and potential witnesses for any information that they may be able to provide us that can lead us to the identification of suspects.’

A search of the residence revealed six additional victims, who had also suffered gunshot wounds. They were all pronounced dead at the scene

A search of the residence revealed six additional victims, who had also suffered gunshot wounds. They were all pronounced dead at the scene

Despite there being no arrests or identified suspects, the sheriff’s statement called the deaths ‘an isolated incident’ that did not threaten people in Aguanga.

Bianco said the FBI and other federal agencies have been requested to assist in the investigation because evidence indicates the cultivation operation had connections in other states.

The biggest indicator of a multi-state ties, the sheriff said, was indicated by the fact a number of vehicles found at the property were registered outside the state of California. 

Sheriff Bianco said the investigation may even go beyond the US. ‘All of the people who were on site that were potential witnesses or the victims, were Laotians,’ he said, declining to elaborate further. 

Partially eaten pizza sat in boxes in a circular dirt driveway of the dilapidated two-bedroom house. Three cars were parked outside – one with its front doors open.

Cases of bottled water were stacked on the front porch, which was strewn with clothing and plastic bags. A black tarp was stretched atop poles in the fenced backyard, indicating a small growing operation. Unlike many neighboring homes, it had neither a gate nor a ‘no trespassing’ sign at the entrance.

Reached by phone, property owner Ronald McKay expressed surprise, saying he didn’t know a shooting had taken place at either of the rentals, a mobile home and the house.

He said he had tried to visit Monday to check on the well during the recent heat wave, but he was turned away by a deputy who wouldn’t tell him what was going on. He said he left his phone number, but authorities never called.

Investigators seized more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana and several hundred marijuana plants, believed to hold a street value of up to $5 million

Investigators seized more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana and several hundred marijuana plants, believed to hold a street value of up to $5 million

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

‘I’m kind of unaware of anything right now,’ McKay said. ‘For two and three years, they’ve been there – perfect. Never had an issue.’

The state of California broadly legalized recreational marijuana sales in January 2018. But the illicit market is thriving – in part because hefty legal marijuana taxes send consumers looking for better deals in the illegal economy.

Many California communities have not established legal marijuana markets or have banned commercial marijuana activity. Law enforcement has been unable to keep up with the illicit growing operations.

Of roughly 14 million pounds of cannabis grown in California, some 80 percent is sent out illicitly to the rest of the country, according to state estimates, where the product can command vastly higher prices than in California. 

Illegal grows are common in and around Aguanga too, a single 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 how violence permeates California’s illegal marijuana market. 

Deputies in February seized more than 9,900 plants and collected 411 pounds of processed marijuana and firearms from suspected illegal marijuana sites in the Aguanga area. Four people were arrested.

Law enforcement surveillance in the area has spawned nicknames like ‘Marijuana Mondays,’ ‘Weed Wednesdays’ and ‘THC Thursdays,’ said Mike Reed, a real estate broker and 28-year Aguanga resident.

Illegal grows are common in and around Aguanga too, a single stop-sign town of about 2,000 people north of San Diego with horse ranches along dirt roads

Illegal grows are common in and around Aguanga too, a single stop-sign town of about 2,000 people north of San Diego with horse ranches along dirt roads

Deputies in February seized more than 9,900 plants and collected 411 pounds of processed marijuana and firearms from suspected illegal marijuana sites in the Aguanga area

Deputies in February seized more than 9,900 plants and collected 411 pounds of processed marijuana and firearms from suspected illegal marijuana sites in the Aguanga area

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

Residents move to Aguanga for ‘peace and solitude,’ Reed said. ‘People live here because it’s not in the city.’

Aguanga’s isolation, however, may have made it prone to illegal marijuana sales and cultivation. The sheriff said almost every marijuana operation in the mountainous communities is illegal.

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

‘Shame on all of us: It seems we have one foot in and one foot out on regulating this industry,’ Spiker said. 

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

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

Laotian involvement in illegal marijuana harvesting has grown over the last decade in California’s agricultural heartland. People from the relatively small community account for much of the pot growing in backyards and on prime farmland.

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

‘That’s why the violence becomes worse and worse,’ Kiloh said.

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