Denver7 was on scene when agents removed marijuana plants from several homes in the Tollgate subdivision in Aurora.
Row after row after row of marijuana plants are lying in the driveway, & on the sidewalk & front lawn of a house on Whitaker Drive in Aurora. DEA executing dozens of federal warrants related to suspected illegal grows. pic.twitter.com/xCx1gUG8Xh
"We've been targeting a marijuana criminal organization for quite some time," said Timothy Scott of the DEA. "The ongoing investigation is under seal, so I can't go into details."
Video: DEA Raids Aurora Home & Seizes Piles Of Marijuana Plants
When asked about arrests, they said those likely wouldn't happen until much later in the investigation.
Neighbors were surprised to see a heavily armed police presence in the normally quiet Tollgate neighborhood.
"It was a complete shock to us," said Hardy Jones, who moved to Colorado about a month ago. "We had no idea what was going on."
"It was a little scary for a while," said neighbor Gary Gradoville. "I'm not totally surprised, with the marijuana laws here in Colorado, that stuff like this happens, but it's reassuring, at least, that authorities are taking the bull by the horns and are stopping it when they see it."
"As a matter of fact," he said, "it actually started a fire because of the heat lamps in the basement."
Nearly 100 homes and businesses were raided in the metro area during a similar operation back in August.
18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler says black market marijuana goes against what the people voted for in 2012, when they approved Amendment 64, which regulates recreational marijuana.
"This office and our partners, local and federal, are attempting to enforce the will of the people…by cracking down on all those who operate outside of that regulated framework," Brauchler said.
Scott told Denver7 that black market marijuana, which would bring $1,000 a pound in Colorado, is being sold for upward of $7,000 a pound on the east coast.
"These homes are being destroyed from within," he said. "We have people installing electrical wiring and equipment that is not up to code. You have mold problems, and infrastructure problems."
Scott says holes are being cut into walls and floors for ventilation equipment, and that those holes are compromising fire safety.
"If there's a fire and the fire department comes in, they're going to stop," he said. "They don't want to get messed up in a bunch of wiring or netting. It's a safety issue."
Scott wouldn't talk about what officers found in any of the homes on Wednesday, but he did say that in the past, they've seen children living in grow house, with pesticides and chemicals "all over the house."
"We've seen weapons," he said. "Weapons are very common. I've seen grow houses where power boxes where open. The residents had stolen power, and put a transformer inside the house, and there were kids and dogs walking around. It was completely open and if anyone ever touched it, it would kill them instantly."
Brauchler said that since voters approved recreational marijuana in 2012, there have been 11 murders in his district alone, related to the illegal transaction of marijuana.
"That's just the tip of the pyramid, when it comes to violent crime," he said. "What we didn't do was try to figure out how many attempted murders, how many assaults, robberies, burglaries and trespasses were involved."
The DA said once the investigation is complete and arrests are made, he'll sit down with federal officials to decide where the cases will be prosecuted.
Federal and local agents fanned out across the Aurora area Wednesday morning, targeting a posh neighborhood as they executed more than two dozen warrants to search suspected illegal marijuana grow houses.
At these homes, largely in the Tollgate Crossing subdivision near Aurora’s Cherokee Trail High School, agents could be seen carrying hundreds of marijuana plants outside, lining them up in neat rows across driveways and front lawns
Hundreds of local, state and federal officers, including agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, hit at least 24 homes during Wednesday’s raids, which Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler said were centered on a single criminal operation.
“They are related to a black-market marijuana operation,” DEA spokesman Randy Ladd said. Tollgate Crossing is “a very affluent neighborhood. Houses there sell for $500,000 to $600,000.”
Ladd declined to say how many total warrants were served. Wednesday afternoon, DEA agents executed multiple additional warrants in the Conservatory neighborhood of Aurora, he confirmed.
Mary Johnson lives three doors down from one of the houses raided Wednesday morning. She said she had no idea homes were being used for illegal marijuana grows in Tollgate Crossing.
“It’s a little concerning because who knows what kinds of people this is bringing into the neighborhood,” she said.
A quick drive through the snowy Tollgate Crossing subdivision Wednesday morning revealed DEA agents lining up hundreds of marijuana plants across the lawns of several homes. Agents seized 256 plants from one house on Haleyville Street, a DEA official said. Another house in the neighborhood had more than twice that amount, said the agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal the numbers of plants seized.
According to Ladd, “people don’t live in these homes. They bought them solely to run marijuana operations. It’s a large operation, but the size of this operation is becoming more and more common.”
But one neighbor on Haleyville Street, who would not disclose her name, said she knows a family with two younger children that lives in one of the raided homes.
“The kids stood out front this morning and watched this all happen,” she said. “They might not know what was going on exactly, but they knew it wasn’t good.
Carlos Gonzalez walked out to his sidewalk to see all the commotion on his block. He said he’s never seen anything like this in his neighborhood, but it’s not terribly surprising given Colorado’s reputation as a marijuana haven.
“Still, I have two kids,” Gonzalez said. “There are many kids in the neighborhood. Weird people can show up to the neighborhood if this stuff is going on.”
Others in Tollgate Crossing were not fazed by the rash of apparent grow houses found in the subdivision.
“This isn’t too surprising,” said Pete Holub. “It’s just pot. This is nothing new.”
Hardy Jones, who just moved in across the street from one of the raided homes, said when he saw a U-Haul and several cars in front of his house Wednesday morning, he thought someone was moving out.
“I said, ‘Look at all these people helping this guy move, that’s nice of them,” Jones said with a chuckle.
He said while it was “hard to take in” that his neighbors ran a large-scale grow house, he wasn’t concerned.
“I’m ex-military,” Jones said. “It’s more interesting than worrying.”
Ladd, the DEA spokesman, alleged that black-market pot operations have brought many other illegal activities to Colorado, increasing the numbers of murders, robberies and gun sales.
“We find guns at almost all illegal grow operations,” he said. “A lot of the black-market traffickers are poly-drug operations that sell cocaine, methamphetamine, opioids and heroin.”
Brauchler, who is running for Colorado attorney general, said he’s seen 11 first-degree murder cases in the 17th Judicial District related to black-market marijuana transactions since the state first legalized recreational marijuana nearly five years ago.
“We have seen a huge surge in black-market marijuana busts,” he said. “And in the past you could expect black-market marijuana to be a lower potency, lower grade, lower quality… We’re talking about significant grows. And this stuff is going to be diverted outside the state of Colorado to places that dont have a regulated marijuana market. And thats us being bad neighbors.”
Two weeks ago, U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer predicted that he would target illegal grow operations disguised as legal marijuana grow houses as part of a new strategy in the drug war.
Troyer said his decision to focus on licensed marijuana dispensaries and grow houses in Denver metro neighborhoods is driven in part by poorly written and enforced Colorado laws that have caused the black-market drug trade in this state to boom and contribute to a spike in violent crime.
Going back to when Colorados recreational marijuana law was passed in 2012, the U.S. Attorneys Office in Denver along with state and federal drug task forces largely targeted illegal marijuana grows making no attempt to follow state laws. Most of them had operated in remote Western Slope counties. Colorado, local and federal agents and prosecutors reported great success, making dozens of arrests and seizing 7.3 tons of marijuana.
Ladd said that just since 2014, law enforcement officers in Colorado have raided 300 black-market marijuana grow houses and seized 70,000 marijuana plants weighing 10,000 pounds.
Its going to go up today, said Ladd, referring to the number of marijuana plants seized. We have seen a significant increase in black-market marijuana activity. Its millions and millions of dollars.
In a recent interview, Troyer said Cuban and Chinese drug cartels are getting involved in Colorado. In many cases, he said, heavily armed and violent Cuban gang members based in Miami are coming to Colorado and raiding illegal grows and in some cases killing pot growers.
One of the common things that go on are the Craigslist ads, he said. Other times people come to Colorado solely to steal the marijuana.
Ladd said that the growth in Colorados black-market marijuana production is also related to light sentencing laws.