More than 3,000 pounds of fresh marijuana buds in the back of a moving van cruising down a Grand Junction road.
Close to 200 plants in an unfinished Grand Junction basement, strung with grow lights and vented with silver tubing.
A house on 29 Road, apparently set up as a processing plant, with dried bud spread out on tarps on the floor.
Hundreds of marijuana plants, lined in neat rows on a New Castle ranch, spotted by a federal agent flying overhead.
Raids in recent months by local and federal law enforcement officers that have resulted in the seizure of thousands of pounds of marijuana, and arrests of multiple Chinese or Chinese-language-speaking suspects across two Western Slope counties, appear to be linked by an overarching investigation that dates back more than a year, and could result in federal charges.
Investigators from multiple agencies have declined to say much publicly about still-ongoing investigations in Mesa and Garfield counties. However, court records show that at least two of the people arrested have close ties to the Western Slope. Several thousand pounds of dried marijuana buds have been seized, along with several thousand whole plants and growing paraphernalia.
"I think it has a potential to be a pretty big case in terms of a drug trafficking organization," said Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario. "International, all that kind of stuff."
2016 CASE NETTED THOUSANDS OF PLANTS, BUT NO CHARGES
A central figure in the investigation appears to be Rifle resident and restaurateur Heung Yu Wong. The 48-year-old owner and operator of the Thai Chili Bistro restaurant in downtown Rifle also appears to have been the registered agent in state records for a now-defunct business in Grand Junction, Mei Fung Inc., 2430 North Ave. The address is now home to Randy's Southside Diner, and was formerly inhabited by Chinese restaurant Golden City, which appears to have been the operational name of Wong's business.
Reached by phone at his Rifle eatery last week, Wong referred a reporter to his lawyer, Lawson Wills, who did not return a call for comment.
Wong, who lives at 1339 Rifle Heights Drive, paid cash two years ago for a 47-acre parcel of land at 2519 County Road 210 in Rifle, a purchase he made along with a Choi Ling Ching, county records said.
Last year, the sprawling property on what's also known as Mile Pond Road came under the lens when a tipster called the Mesa County Sheriff's Office to report a marijuana grow on the land, which is situated north of Rifle Creek Nursery.
"The anonymous complainant stated the marijuana cultivators were in the process of cutting their alleged five thousand plants," a federal Drug Enforcement Administration special agent said in an arrest affidavit prepared by Kevin Osborne, with the multi-agency Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team, or TRIDENT, in Garfield County.
Garfield County sheriff personnel went up a hill on the day the anonymous tip came in and saw a large field containing what they thought were marijuana plants, the affidavit said. The next day, Sept. 19, a county code enforcement officer went to the property and spoke at a gate with a man of Asian descent who had a pistol on his hip. The officer explained the rules in Colorado for growing recreational, caregiver and medical marijuana, and after first acting like he didn't understand, the man said he had a recreational grow, the affidavit said.
It says the officer then explained such grows are limited to six plants per person, and after the man was asked how many plants he was growing, he said he now understood and would get it taken care of.
Meanwhile, DEA agents were conducting surveillance of the property. Osborne wrote in his affidavit that a DEA agent saw multiple men loading a large U-Haul truck with marijuana. Another DEA agent then saw the truck and a Camaro heading west toward Rifle.
A sheriff's deputy pulled over the truck for speeding, and the driver said there was marijuana in the truck that had no value because it had been pollinated, and he was taking it to the dump. The driver consented to letting the deputy look in the back of the truck and it was filled to the ceiling with marijuana, the affidavit said.
The driver and his passenger were taken to the Rifle Police Department, and the Camaro was stopped and its four occupants arrested. Meanwhile, deputies who went to the grow property to secure it while awaiting a search warrant saw what they said appeared to be efforts to destroy evidence, and several people fleeing the area. A DEA agent also reported seeing about 50 trash bags filled with what appeared to be marijuana plants stacked at the end of the driveway.
Eight people believed to have fled the grow site were found hiding in fields and brush and were arrested.
In all, 2,420 marijuana plants were seized and destroyed, a later report said.
In an interview around the time of the arrests last year, Vallario said he disagrees with the decisions Colorado voters made to legalize medical and then recreational marijuana sales and use, explaining that one of the problems has been the ability of black-market growers to hide behind the complex laws and regulations applying to legal marijuana.
"There's a lot of confusion right now on what is literally legal, what isn't, what kind of loopholes there are," he said. "… We're seeing more of these (illegal grows) and it's time when we're not going to tolerate it in Garfield County."
While authorities reported that 14 Chinese nationals were arrested in the Rifle-area operation, none were ultimately charged. Sherry Caloia, at that time the district attorney for the 9th Judicial District before losing her re-election bid to challenger Jeff Cheney, cited difficulties including not knowing what roles many of them were playing, and the concern that some might have been trafficked workers not working there entirely by choice.
She also cited the difficulty in finding interpreters to deal with language barriers involving those arrested.
While Vallario sometimes disagreed with Caloia over some of her charging decisions, he said in a recent interview that in this case, "it was a good call and we all supported it."
Vallario said local investigators realized that the potential scope of the trafficking operation, with possible international smuggling and trafficking aspects to it involving foreign nationals, made it better suited for the DEA to investigate, so it was left in that agency's hands to pursue, based on a coordinated decision between agencies.
Despite his apparent ties to the grow on Mile Pond Road, Wong was not arrested last year. Vallario said that's probably because he wasn't on the scene at the time, and the matter was turned over shortly afterward to federal investigators.
SCOPE WIDENS, MESA COUNTY TIES EMERGE
While large swaths of the still-ongoing investigation remain under wraps, court records seem to indicate that the 2016 Mile Pond Road raid prompted the next phase of investigation into Wong and his properties.
Osborne wrote in a later report that after the raid, a DEA special agent learned of the approximately 40-acre property Wong owns at 8000 County Road 313, outside New Castle. The agent flew over the remote ranch this summer and saw what appeared to be a large amount of marijuana growing in rows.
The agent requested a search warrant for the property, as well as one for Wong's home at 1339 Rifle Heights Drive.
It's not clear from court records when exactly search warrants were sought, or whether task force officers and federal agents were looking at Mesa County ties to the case at the time.
However, before the Rifle and New Castle addresses could be raided, an apparently chance encounter between an alert Mesa County sheriff's deputy and two allegedly related suspects resulted in the new case's first arrests.
On Sept. 23, a deputy — who was not working with the Western Colorado Drug Task Force — was driving south on 29 Road in Fruitvale when he pulled up behind a white Penske moving truck and, from his own patrol vehicle, noticed the overwhelming smell of marijuana, a Mesa County report said.
After pulling the driver over on a speeding violation, the deputy approached the truck and asked driver Sinh Chan Hoang, a 53-year-old with a California address, whether there was any marijuana in the truck.
"Yes," Hoang replied, according to the deputy's report. "Just a little."
Hoang, who in court would be assisted by a Mandarin interpreter, agreed and led the deputy to the truck's rear compartment. Deputies who searched the truck turned up 3,100 pounds of fresh marijuana buds in 87 trash bags, the report said.
Hoang told the deputy he had gotten a call asking if he "wanted to do something for money," an affidavit for his arrest said. He said he had picked up the rental truck in Pleasant View, Colorado, then driven it to another location.
"When he arrived, they started putting bags in the back of the truck and Sinh told them no," deputy wrote in the affidavit of his conversation with Hoang, whose English is not fluent. "He then said, 'They say kill me.' "
The deputy tried to clarify, asking Hoang if someone threatened to kill him.
"He paused, looked away from me and said, 'No, just kidding,' " the report said.
Hoang and his 49-year-old passenger, Larry Tran of Rosemead, California, gave deputies different stories about how they knew each other.
Both were arrested on suspicion of possession with intent to distribute marijuana, a class one drug felony, and as of Saturday remained in the Mesa County Jail in lieu of $100,000 cash-surety bonds.
OFFICERS MAKE MULTIPLE ARRESTS
Less than three weeks after Hoang and Tran were arrested and the Penske van seized, the same Mesa County sheriff's deputy made another arrest in the case.
While on patrol Oct. 11, he pulled over a silver Acura near the intersection of Elm Avenue and 28¾ Road on a traffic violation. Inside was 62-year-old Long Luong, a Grand Junction resident who was one of the 14 arrested at Wong's Mile Pond Road property a year earlier.
Luong, who owns Grand Junction restaurant Bamboo City, 2472 Patterson Road, cooperated with the deputy and opened the Acura's hatch.
In the back of the Acura were five bags containing 43.5 pounds of raw marijuana stems, buds and leaves, the deputy wrote in his report.
Luong allegedly told the deputy a friend named Wong had asked him to "throw it away." The deputy's report doesn't say whether the friend is believed to be Heung Wong.
Luong was arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession with intent to distribute.
Several hours later — shortly after midnight Oct. 12 — Western Colorado Drug Task Force officers raided a Grand Junction address and seized "significantly more than 50 pounds" of dried marijuana buds that were spread on tarps and stored in more than 15 trash bags, a report said.
Mandarin speakers Juhui Liu and Hai Qui Wan, both 38, were arrested on site at 352 29 Road, Mesa County reports said. The property is owned by a Hui C. Chao, county records said.
It's not clear how or whether Luong's Oct. 11 arrest relates to the Oct. 12 raid. However, Luong's own home was later raided as well, court records said.
At about 1:45 a.m. Oct. 13, while Luong was still in custody, officers from the Western Colorado Drug Task Force met with Luong's wife, 51-year-old Guoying Tang. One investigator reportedly told Tang that her vehicle — a silver Dodge Durango — had been seen earlier at the 29 Road address that was currently being raided.
Tang — who was also one of the 14 people arrested in 2016 at Wong's Rifle-area property — denied being at the 29 Road address and said nobody else had used her vehicle that day. She agreed to a search of her vehicle, and investigators found a couple tarps and a roll of unused black trash bags, but no marijuana, according to a report. They also found a medical marijuana recommendation in Tang's husband's name.
Investigators asked Tang to take them to the couple's house at 595 Gerken Road, where she allegedly admitted there were "probably close to 100" marijuana plants.
After seeing more than 100 plants in Luong's basement along with rigged grow lights and other equipment, investigators sought a search warrant from a Mesa County judge.
Luong didn't stay in jail long. On Oct. 16, he posted a $100,000 surety bond.
On Oct. 19, authorities raided the Gerken Road address and seized 184 marijuana plants. Nobody was home at the time, although that night Luong called dispatch to report a burglary at his home.
"Dispatch advised Mr. Luong of the search warrant which was executed earlier in the day at his residence," an affidavit for his arrest said.
Long was re-arrested on new drug conspiracy charges and ordered held on a $100,000 cash-only bond.
His wife and stepson, both of whom live at the Gerken Road address, were not arrested.
WONG ARRESTED, MARIJUANA SEIZED
The latest arrest and raid came two weeks later, when DEA and TRIDENT agents executed the warrants they had requested for Wong's home and ranch.
When authorities searched the ranch property on Nov. 2, no one was there but several 50-gallon trash bags filled with marijuana were found inside, the affidavit said. It said the pot was contained in smaller, vacuum-sealed bags inside the larger bags, and altogether the bags contained about 250 to 300 pounds of marijuana that appeared to be packaged with intent to transport and sell it.
Investigators also found about 713 evenly spaced holes and water piping outside the home, and Osborne says in the affidavit that the holes likely held 713 pot plants that the agent saw when flying over the property.
The affidavit says numerous more large trash bags with smaller sealed bags of pot inside them were found at Wong's Rifle home, and weighed more than 50 pounds in total. A semiautomatic rifle and 11 other firearms were found there, along with a homemade, threaded silencer, the affidavit says.
Wong faces marijuana- and firearm-related charges, and a child abuse charge for allegedly not securing the marijuana in the home so his son couldn't access it.
Wong has since bonded out of the Garfield County Jail on a $20,000 cash bond, court records show.
LINKS AMONG THE CASES
Involved local and federal agencies have been tight-lipped about the cases, citing the ongoing nature of the investigation, and some search warrants have been sealed.
However, attorneys speaking during open court have linked the cases. The day after Wong's arrest in Garfield County, Tran, one of the two men in the Penske moving van allegedly hauling more than 3,000 pounds of fresh bud, appeared in court to ask that his bond be lowered. Mesa County prosecutor Jennifer Springer objected, citing his case's suspected connections to the Garfield County case.
Springer, who along with prosecutor Bo Zeerip is handling the cases for the Mesa County District Attorney's office, declined to talk about the investigation, as did Hassan Hassan, a Mesa County Sheriff's Office sergeant assigned to the Western Colorado Drug Task Force.
Springer and Hassan both said an investigation is active and ongoing.
So far, the five defendants are only being prosecuted in state court — Luong, Wan, Liu, Tran and Hoang in Mesa County, and Wong in Garfield County. However, it's possible one or more defendants may be charged in federal court as well.
"The U.S. Attorney's Office is coordinating with the local district attorney and the state and federal drug task forces (in) making a charging decision of what jurisdiction is more appropriate," said Jeff Dorschner, a Department of Justice spokesman. "There are a lot of factors that need to be analyzed, and so it can take some time before a charging decision is made."
Local defense attorneys involved said they are still learning more about their clients' cases.
"I have kind of a general … sense of how this was all organized, but not a very specific sense," said defense attorney Jason Conley, who has been assigned to represent Tran. "There's still a fair amount of discovery that's coming in."
Tony Link, who is representing Hoang, declined to comment on his client's case. Wan and Liu both said in recent hearings that they plan to hire private attorneys.
Defense attorney Steve Laiche, who is representing Luong, said he has yet to see photographs of marijuana.
He said he questions the validity of the search of Luong's car that preceded the 62-year-old's first arrest, because of Luong's language barrier.
He also said Luong was a marijuana caregiver and he doesn't think his client is linked in any way to Wan and Liu, who were arrested the same weekend.
"Everyone is trying to make a connect between Mr. Luong and the other persons that were arrested the same weekend," Laiche said. "They are mistaken in that impression. So sometimes, unfortunately, just because people have last names that seem to be Asian, they lump them in one category."