On the day of the big raid in late 2017, there were so many local, state and federal police involved that the Grays Harbor Drug Task Force held their morning briefing in a gymnasium.
More than a year later, authorities in Pacific County and elsewhere are still working their way through the criminal and civil forfeiture cases generated by “Operation Green Jade.”
Starting on Nov. 27, 2017, law enforcement officers served dozens of warrants in a coordinated effort to crack down on illegal Chinese-run marijuana-growing operations. Chinese and Chinese-American buyers paid cash to purchase dozens of dirt-cheap properties in southwest Washington and converted them into grow-houses. Many of the purchases were made in 2017, but property and business records show a handful of the ringleaders have been in the region for 10 years or more, and some owned businesses in Grays Harbor County.
By Dec. 4, the task force had arrested at least 50 people, seized about 35,000 plants and 50 pounds of processed pot and confiscated 26 vehicles. Police also found guns and more than $400,000 in cash and gold. In Pacific County, police searched a property in North Cove, where a pair of Vietnamese-American men were growing an estimated 2,400 plants. Authorities now believe the Vietnamese growhouse had no connection to the Chinese operation. Police also raided two Chinese-run properties near Raymond,
“It was a massive operation,” said Grays Harbor County Deputy Prosecutor Randy Trick. He has handled much of the ongoing criminal prosecution in Grays Harbor County, where the majority of warrants were served.
In the lead-up to the raid, investigators used real estate documents and utility bills to build their cases. After the raid, they continued to research the connections between the dozens of moldering mobile homes in the woods of southwest Washington, a plain gray family home in central Seattle, two shabby brick apartments in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a distant city in China. The Task Force suspected they were providing illegal pot to markets on the East Coast, but they could only gather a limited amount of information about what happened once the pot left the Evergreen State.
“The detectives had a few leads that the marijuana was being taken out of state, but that wasn’t something our detectives had the manpower to follow up on,” Trick explained.
Laborers in limbo
There were hundreds of documents to comb through, language barriers, myriad immigration issues, out-of-town defense attorneys and so many suspects that some investigators had to make spreadsheets to keep them straight. Initially, dozens of suspects were booked into jail, Trick said, but many were quickly released.
“We were focused mostly on the people whose names had shown up on utility bills and deeds for houses,” Trick said. “Many were just tending to crops.” Many of the low-level laborers were very recent immigrants, or had only been in the area a short time. Some may have been promised jobs before they arrived, or may have agreed to work off smuggling fees without knowing what type of work they’d be asked to do. While the workers appeared to be there of their own accord, they might not have had the wherewithal to leave the grow houses, Trick said.
Some of the suspects quickly took plea deals, including one of the men who was running the North Cove grow house. Many landed in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. At least one agreed to provide information to the FBI. Some are still being considered for charges and others have court cases that have dragged on.
That is the case with three Pacific County suspects who were charged in early 2018: Qing Yun Chen, 40, Yong Juan Wu, 39, and Wei Neng Chen, 49. Property records suggest that the three may have been instrumental in setting up both the Pacific and Grays Harbor grow houses — their names appear on numerous property deeds in both counties, and are also listed as having addresses in Seattle and Brooklyn.
According to probable cause statements, the Task Force identified Wei Chen as a ringleader in late 2017, and attached a tracking device to his truck. They contacted the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office when they learned he was making regular trips to a house in Raymond. The other two suspects had purchased the two properties, on SR 6 and Hammond Road. Utility bills showed power use at both houses was 5 to 10 times higher than it should have been.
While serving warrants in late November, deputies found 900 plants in the Hammond Road house and 885 in the SR 6 house. Wu and Wei Chen had both been arrested during previous searches of Grays Harbor County grow houses. Qing Chen was summoned to court and arraigned in February 2018. Wei Chen and Yong Wu also face drug-related charges in Grays Harbor County.
It could be a long time before the work related to Operation Green Jade is done, prosecutors said. This is partly because some suspects with ongoing court cases have vanished. Wu appears to have disappeared after being released from an ICE detention center. She was due to appear in Pacific County Superior Court last August, but did not turn up. A judge issued a warrant for her arrest, but she has not been found.
Civil attorneys in both Pacific and Grays Harbor counties are in the midst of trying to seize grow house properties through civil forfeiture proceedings.
“They have many more open cases than I do involving people who were never charged, people who were out of state,” Trick said. “The civil prosecutors are still very much in the middle of this.”
In Grays Harbor County, Trick is still considering pressing criminal charges against some suspects. McClain, the Pacific County prosecutor, said there are no other pending charges here. And while several grow houses have been discovered in Grays Harbor County since the raid, none of them had any ties to the Chinese outfit, Trick said.