The scent of marijuana was so strong Monroe Township police officer Thomas Lucasiewicz said he could smell it through the vents of his patrol car during a midnight shift last month.
When he looked around and couldn’t find anyone smoking on patios or in parked cars, the officer concluded it was coming from the chimney of a home on Spotswood-Englishtown Road.
Lucasiewicz said he and other officers who knocked on the door of that house were shocked with what they found: rows and rows of marijuana plants in the basement and bedroom of the one-story home. Wires crisscrossed the house, connecting 64 high-powered lights used to nourish the plants. It was a veritable pot factory.
“I just thought it was a dream,” Lucasiewicz said today.
The aroma of pot was from unusable plants being burned in the fireplace by Thu Nguyen, the Canadian citizen who answered the door and was later arrested, officials said. The 23-year-old cop with less than three years on the job had smelled his way into the biggest marijuana production bust in New Jersey history.
Authorities today said that within two days, police made seizures at five more rented homes in four other towns, arresting two more people. They discovered 3,370 growing plants, 115 pounds of harvested marijuana worth $400,000 as well as $65,000 cash. The State Police-led probe smashed a sophisticated $10 million Vietnamese criminal syndicate, a type of operation most often seen north of the border in Canada, authorities said. It had operated undetected for two years.
Those charged in the $10 million marijuana bust include (top row from left) Minh Bui, Ngoc Bui, Tuan Dang, (bottom row from left) Nhung Thach, Quynh Bui, and Thu Nguyen. “While law enforcement in New Jersey has encountered high-tech indoor marijuana growing operations in the past, we have not seen any to match the nature of the seizures that have been involved in this outstanding investigation,” Attorney General Paula Dow said at press conference in Monroe Township. “This was big business they were conducting right here in our neighborhood.”
Five homes — in Monroe, Millstone, Old Bridge, Manalapan and Manahawkin — were used to grow marijuana. Police found cash and packaging materials at a home in Old Bridge, and they said a home in Barnegat was previously used to grow pot.
Dow said that before 9/11, criminal networks of Vietnamese nationals would grow their weed in Canada and sell it in the United States. With stricter border controls they are increasingly basing their operations in this country, she said.
Asian criminal groups have played an increasing role in indoor marijuana growing, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center, but Rutgers University professor Ko-lin Chin, who studies Asian organized crime, said it’s rare to find such Vietnamese criminal operations on the east coast.
All six suspects named are of Vietnamese descent. The three who were arrested — Nguyen, 44, a Canadian citizen; Tuan A. Dang, 35, of Port Monmouth; and Ngoc H. Bui, 35, of Old Bridge — were charged with maintaining a marijuana cultivation facility and drug possession with intent to distribute, crimes that each carry up to 20 year sentences. They were also charged with theft of services for bypassing electrical meters at four homes to steal thousands of dollars of electricity, and concealing the high amount of energy used to power growing lamps.
Police believe suspects Minh Bui and Quynh Bui fled to Thailand, and Nhung Thach is on the run.
“These criminal groups will buy or rent a house on a middle class, quiet street,” said Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency in Washington. “They’ll draw their blinds so no one knows what’s going on inside.”
That’s what happened in New Jersey, authorities said. The homes were often located in areas with low-density housing, making detection less likely. Neighbors said they had no idea what was going on.
The two-story lavender house in Manahawkin where police said they found 464 plants is a quarter mile from the road in a heavily wooded area. Next-door neighbor Edna Collins said she never suspected anything until a dozen police SUVs pulled up. “How would you know?” she said. “You would never see anything.”
Neighbors near the Monroe Township house discovered by Lucasiewicz were also surprised. Jen Moody said she didn’t think anybody lived in the house but her husband was suspicious when he saw cars come and go in the middle of the night.
Steven Schiffman, who lives four doors from the Millstone home where police said they found 504 plants and 50 pounds of marijuana, said he never saw anybody who rented the property. “The only reason I knew anyone lived there was because the lawn was mowed and when we had the snow storm the driveway was cleared,” he said. more @