Feds shut down massive indoor marijuana operation

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration fanned out through several Harris and Fort Bend County neighborhoods early Tuesday as part of a sweeping raid into dozens of indoor marijuana growing operations.

DEA officials said in all they had search warrants for 61 homes.

"It's very potent, very addictive, people are getting sick and they're making millions of dollars," said Javier Pena, special agent-in-charge of the DEA's Houston office.

Agents dragged away burlap sacks filled with marijuana plants from a home on Piney Heights in The Preserve subdivision. Agents said they found 401 plants growing inside the more than $350,000 home. Just around the corner from this house, agents raided another home with dozens of marijuana plants growing inside. Each of these homes was rigged with dozens of indoor growing lights, irrigation systems, timers and surge protectors.

"They're renting these unassuming homes in very nice neighborhoods and they're setting up their establishment and their grow operation.  They're just blending in with the community," said Thomas Hinojosa, associate special agent-in-charge of the DEA's Houston office.

Residents in the well-manicured neighborhood were suspicious of what was happening inside the homes. Shara Tietz said the two men who lived across the street from her would only stay at the home for short periods of time and never engaged those who lived on the street.

"They never waved," said Tietz. "I'm a very personable person and every time they would drive by I would meaningfully wave at them and they would just stare straight forward."

Tietz's suspicions were confirmed when she saw SWAT officers surrounding the home early Tuesday morning.

"I went and grabbed my kids and put them in the back of the house because there was a SWAT team everywhere with big ol' guns," said Tietz.

The owner of the home on Piney Heights told Local 2 Investigates he never suspected anything was wrong. Earl Torrance said the men arrested during the raids rented the home for about a year and always paid on time. Torrance, owner of TAAK Rehab, said he drove by the house last week and the only concern he had were a few weeds growing in the flower beds.

"It's just crazy," said Torrance. "I got a call from a neighbor telling me to get out here because police were everywhere."

Pena and Hinojosa said the raids were the result of a more than a year-long undercover effort to infiltrate a Vietnamese crime ring. Pena said at least 10 people were arrested but could not be more specific because federal indictments against numerous individuals are still under seal in federal court.

Pena said these operations are very dangerous to the neighborhood around the homes because of the potential for fire. Pena said the operators of these indoor grow houses "hot wire" the homes by connecting directly into the below ground electric line to bypass meters and junction boxes. CenterPoint officials had to be called out to cut power to the homes before agents could dismantle the operations.

"One spark, water, the house will blow," said Pena.

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