7 killed at large-scale California marijuana operation

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Cases of bottled water are seen with other items left on the porch of a house where killings occurred in Aguanga ,Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. Seven people were found fatally shot at an illegal marijuana growing operation in Aguanga. The crime scene was discovered before dawn on Monday, Sept. 7, after deputies responded to a report of an assault with a deadly weapon at a home in the unincorporated community of Aguanga, north of San Diego, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department said in a statement. (AP Photo/Elliot Spagat)

AGUANGA, Calif. – An illegal marijuana growing operation where seven people were fatally shot in a small, rural Southern California town had the markings of organized crime, authorities said Tuesday.

More than 20 people lived on the property, which had several makeshift dwellings, a nursery and vehicles used in production, Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said. Marijuana was processed to honey oil, a highly potent concentrate made by extracting the high-inducing chemical THC from cannabis.

All seven victims and witnesses were Laotian, Bianco said. Six people were found dead on the property, and a woman who was shot there died later at a hospital.

“This was not a small operation,” Bianco said. “This is a very organized-crime type of an operation.”

Illegal grows are common in and around Aguanga, a single stop-sign town of about 2,000 people north of San Diego with horse ranches along dirt roads. Still, the scale of the Labor Day massacre stunned residents and showed how violence permeates California’s illegal marijuana market.

The state broadly legalized recreational marijuana sales in January 2018. But the illicit market is thriving — in part because hefty legal marijuana taxes send consumers looking for better deals in the illegal economy.

Before dawn Monday, Riverside County sheriff’s deputies responded to a 911 call of an assault with a deadly weapon and shots fired at the Aguanga home.

Investigators seized more than 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms) of marijuana and several hundred marijuana plants.