By Mark Emmons, Mark Gomez and Robert Salonga
Members of the San Jose Police Department investigate a homicide scene at a home on Eppling Lane near Latona Court in San Jose, Calif. on Tuesday, March 18, 2014. When officers arrived they found a man suffering from a gunshot wound and he was pronounced dead at the scene. This was the city’s ninth homicide of the year. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group file)
SAN JOSE — The one-story house in the city’s quiet Coyote Creek neighborhood wasn’t particularly noteworthy.
But inside, police found marijuana plants.
And a dead body.
Police have not said how the marijuana growing operation in the Eppling Lane house might be connected to the 26-year-old man who was shot to death there on March 17. But the homicide and two recent electrical fires in San Jose homes highlight the dangers that hidden city pot gardens can bring into unsuspecting communities.
Illegal residential marijuana farms are hardly a new phenomenon in the Bay Area, but the numbers appear to be increasing at a time when law enforcement resources are dwindling and police are focused on more pressing priorities — tracking violent crime, gang activity and keeping a patrol presence on the streets.
“I’m comfortable saying that there are over 100 of these houses, and the majority are in the city of San Jose,” said Sgt. John Spagnola, who heads the two-man Marijuana Eradication Team for the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, the only South Bay agency with deputies devoted solely to eradicating marijuana. “We have tips right now that we just haven’t had time to deal with yet. We could constantly be busting them.”
Just how much the problem has grown is difficult to quantify, law enforcement officials said. Spagnola could only say they are receiving more investigative leads than they have in the past three years. Meanwhile, San Jose police no longer have a centralized method of tracking the number of these so-called grow houses after the Narcotics Covert Investigations unit became a casualty of department short-staffing two years ago.
What is clear is that when these houses go up in smoke, as they often do, the result is a nightmare for firefighters responding to blazes caused by marijuana growers’ shoddy handiwork in bypassing electrical meters to stay off the radar of PG&E. Often, the houses also have chemicals and mold inside.
“It’s basically a hazmat scene because it’s a nursery with all these pesticides,” said Capt. Cleo Doss of the San Jose Fire Department. “But a bigger issue is the electricity. It’s an invisible killer. So if you make a wrong move, it can become very dangerous quickly.”
That, along with such other hazards as barred windows, prevents firefighters from aggressively battling a grow-house blaze. They’re left to focus on keeping the fire from spreading to other homes while they wait for PG&E to cut the power.
“We wear protective clothing and breathing apparatus,” added Vic Massenkoff, an investigator with the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District. “But we have nothing to protect us from electrocution. We might as well be walking into a fire naked.”
Indoor pot operations often are in otherwise safe, quiet residential neighborhoods. From the outside, they look like regular houses, hiding in plain sight until they catch fire, which happened twice within four days in San Jose in March.
“They want to blend into the neighborhood,” said Special Agent Casey Rettig, of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s San Francisco District. “They don’t want to stand out.”
Growers usually rent homes, paying the owner in cash. They gut the interior and convert it into a sophisticated greenhouse with high-intensity lights and air-filtration systems. And the operations, Spagnola said, can produce several climate-controlled crops a year, netting growers more than $1 million annually.
California, Rettig said, is “quite the hotbed” for cultivation because of the potency of the marijuana grown here. In 2013, about 54 percent of indoor marijuana plants seized in the United States came from California, according to DEA figures.
“This has been building over the last couple of years,” said Massenkoff, whose agency in February adopted new rules for fighting grow-house fires after dealing with 25 such blazes over the past three years. “There’s a real demand for California indoor bud everywhere, including on the East Coast.”
In the South Bay, grow houses are often run by gangs affiliated with Vietnamese coffee houses, Spagnola said.
San Jose police are tight-lipped about the fatal shooting of Tony Thanh Nhan Nguyen at the Eppling Lane house, which also served as a school bus stop. There have been no arrests. Sources said pot was being grown on the premises.
Darryl Ospring, a Coyote Creek Neighborhood Association board member, said there were two grow houses in the community previously. The first was discovered when a fire destroyed an indoor pot farm about three years ago. A year later, the association reported another suspicious house that turned out to be a grow operation.
But the homicide, Ospring said, has sent shivers through the neighborhood.
“The murder has thrown us for loop,” said Ospring, 61, who has lived there for 34 years. “It’s shocking because we have worked so hard to make this neighborhood safe.”
In the past, San Jose’s dedicated narcotics unit investigated grow houses. But now, any San Jose police investigations on the houses falls upon the already overtaxed patrol force — when available.
“You need search warrants, an entry team, a perimeter team,” said Sgt. Heather Randol, a police spokeswoman. “It’s scarcely done. We know the importance of stopping grow houses, because they bring crime and blight, and the theft of power affects everybody. We need to find the resources to do that.”
Spagnola’s team with the Sheriff’s Office typically investigates the kind of cases that resulted in the January arrest of three people and the seizure of more than $700,000 in pot — including 307 plants — at two homes. One house, not far from an elementary school, was guarded by a pit bull. The second was a 2,800-square-foot, million-dollar-plus home located near a golf course.
But now the unit is gearing up for the outdoor growing season, and that complicates investigations of indoor grow houses.
Ospring said her neighbors believe more needs to be done to combat the problem.
“We don’t want this on the back burner,” she said. “It shouldn’t be swept under the rug.”
Contact Mark Emmons 408-920-5745 or follow him at Twitter.com/markedwinemmons or Mark Gomez at 408-920-9869 or follow him at Twitter.com/markmgomez.
2013 DOMESTIC CANNABIS ERADICATION/SUPPRESSION
- 4,395,240 total indoor and outdoor cultivated plants
- 361,727 indoor plants
- 4,033,513 outdoor plants
- 2,903,887 total indoor and outdoor cultivated plants
- 196,096 indoor plants
- 2,707,791 outdoor plants
Source: Drug Enforcement Agency
TELLTALE SIGNS OF AN INDOOR MARIJUANA GROW OPERATION
- Windows are always dark with blinds drawn shut.
- Additional water lines and/or electrical cords running into the residence.
- Excessive security such as guard dogs, cameras, fencing and “keep out” signs.
- People seen entering with unrecognizable equipment as well as building materials and agricultural items such as plastic sheeting, piping, fertilizer bags, potting soil and pots.
- Unusual traffic, such as tenants coming and going at odd hours.
- Little or no garbage is brought to the curb each week.
- Strong and strange odors coming from the house.
- Heavy condensation on the inside of the windows or roof.
- Humming sound of fans or generators.
Source: Drug Enforcement Agency
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