11 charged in ‘massive’ underground illegal marijuana grow found in Mojave Desert – San Bernardino Sun

After the discovery of a “massive” underground illegal marijuana grow in the far reaches of the Mojave Desert, San Bernardino County authorities charged 11 men and women believed to be behind the operation that used thousands of gallons of water on a daily basis to grow more than $4 million worth of unlicensed marijuana, authorities said Monday, May 23.

The newest bust in conjunction with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s Operation Hammer Strike — a six-team unit attempting to thwart illegal marijuana cultivation in the High Desert and elsewhere in the county consisting of sheriff’s deputies and state Fish & Wildlife officers — took place in Newberry Springs, an unincorporated community east of Barstow along the 40 Freeway. The operation, which was expanded in August 2021, is estimated to have seized more than $750 million worth of illegally cultivated marijuana since then, said Sheriff Shannon Dicus.

“By the time we complete Operation Hammer Strike, I think that number’s going to be closer to $1 billion of product,” Dicus said at a news conference.

After serving a search warrant on March 3 at a five-acre property, deputies unearthed an approximately 14,000-square-foot marijuana grow operation that was situated underground in a “bunker” made out of Conex container boxes, according to authorities. The operation comprised of more than 6,000 marijuana plants that had the potential yield of more than 3,000 pounds of marijuana, authorities said.

Black market prices could value the amount of marijuana produced from the grow between $4.6 and $9 million, authorities said.

Officials estimated each plant required 1 gallon of water per day, indicating that at least 6,000 gallons of water was used daily in this operation. An estimated $33,000 of gasoline was found on the property as well, according to San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson.

“What we’re talking about here is a danger to the environment,” Anderson said. “That’s why we’re approaching it with the environmental aspect, because we think everybody in this state can get around that and rally behind that.”

However, this was not the Sheriff’s Department’s first encounter with this property recently.

Back in August 2020, the Sheriff’s Department served a search warrant for a suspected illegal marijuana grow at the same property, the District Attorney’s Office said. During that  search, eight greenhouses were located to contain 2,000 marijuana plants as well as 100 pounds of processed marijuana, officials said.

The property owner, Cheng Lin, 30, was detained, along with Zhonggui He, 59 and Wenren He, 42, officials said. Authorities said the 2020 investigation resulted in misdemeanor citations.

Lin then sold the property to Qiaoyan Liu, 35, in November 2020, authorities said.

On March 3, a team with the Sheriff’s Department’s Operation Hammer Strike returned with another search warrant for the property, authorities said. A single red Conex box was located on the property, and inside the deputies discovered the floor opened and descended into an underground “bunker,” officials said.

The bunker was 230 feet in length and 60 feet in width, comprised of more than 30 Conex boxes that were placed about 15 feet below the ground, officials said. In a statement, the District Attorney’s Office called it “massive.”

“What we’ve got going on here, is that we’ve got a bootleg Amazon selling illegal or counterfeit products out of a warehouse that’s buried underground,” Anderson said. “Who can compete against that? Jeff Bezos couldn’t compete against that.”

During the March search, eight additional people were detained at the scene after they attempted to flee the property, authorities said. Processed marijuana was found at both the home of Cheng Lin, as well as a commercial property leased in his name, officials said.

On May 13, all 11 allegedly involved parties were charged in San Bernardino County Superior Court with a variety of felony and misdemeanor charges, officials said.

All were charged with cultivating more than six marijuana plants with concurrent violation of environmental law, possession of marijuana for sale, illegal discharge of waste and intentionally and with gross negligence causing substantial harm to public lands and other public resources, officials said.

Cheng Lin and Qiaoyan Liu were charged with felony conspiracy to commit a crime, authorities said. A request for comment was placed with an attorney representing them.

Cheng Lin was arrested Friday, May 20, in Irvine, according to San Bernardino County inmate records. Wu Lin, 33, and Qiaoyan Liu were arrested the same day in Alhambra, jail records showed.

Zhonggui He was arrested Friday, May 20, at 46282 Palma Vista Rd. in Newberry Springs, jail records showed. Mingfeng He, 35, was arrested the same day in Brea, jail records showed.

All arrestees were held on $25,000 bail, records indicated.

Weijian Liu, 33, Aiqing Lin, 52, Wenren He, Lijie Lin, 37, Bin Li, 38 and Huang Lin, 27, were still outstanding as of Monday, Anderson said. Warrants for their arrests had been issued, Superior Court records indicated.

It wasn’t immediately known if any of the other defendants had attorneys who could comment on the charges.

The suspects in the investigation were believed to be a “conglomerate of individuals” that had property connections over a period of time, Anderson said.

Authorities were in the process of potentially seizing the property from its owners in an attempt to re-sell it to the public, Anderson said.

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