Pot grow network bust presents problems for courts

Following the arrests of nearly 50 Chinese citizens suspected of involvement in an illegal pot growing operation on Grays Harbor, law enforcement officials and prosecutors have been scrambling and dealing with language barrier challenges to figure out what the individuals’ backstories are and deciding who will be prosecuted. At one point in the early going, they relied on the Google Translate app.

On Nov. 29, two female Chinese nationals made their initial appearances in Grays Harbor Superior Court.

Yong Juan Wu, 38, and Fei-Hui Zheng, 50, both face charges related to the illegal manufacture of marijuana and unlawful use of buildings for drug purposes.

Judge David L. Edwards cited both defendants as flight risks in setting bail for each at $2 million. Prosecutors noted that Wu is wanted by federal immigration authorities who would seek to detain Wu should bail not be set.

According to court documents, Wu is the owner of a Cosmopolis residence were the execution of a search warrant on Nov. 28 revealed a “large sophisticated commercial unlicensed marijuana grow operation.” Zheng is the owner of an Aberdeen address where a similar operation was found and allegedly made statements to arresting officers that the operation was “hers,” the documents continued.

Judge Edwards made a conditional appointment of a public defender for Zheng when she claimed to be unable to afford legal representation.

Also on Nov. 29, the Grays Harbor County Prosecutor’s Office decided to release 31 of the suspects, believing they were coerced into accepting work at the grow facilities under the impression that it was a legal operation.

“Many of them were brought here under somewhat false pretenses,” County Sheriff Rick Scott said Thursday afternoon. “They were led to believe they were going to be growing marijuana, and that this was legal here in Washington, and that they would be compensated for what they were doing.”

The pot was growing in dozens of homes around the county. More than 32,000 plants were confiscated in initial raids, which Chief Criminal Deputy Steve Shumate said had an estimated value of more than $80 million. The typical scenario involved cash purchase of homes by Asian buyers and the homes converted to grow operations.

Publicity about the raids has brought calls from people telling police about more grow operations.

Pacific County Sheriff’s Office investigators identified and searched three residences last week, located near Menlo, Raymond and Grayland. From the three houses combined, officers seized 2,394 more marijuana plants, along with an estimated 20 pounds of processed marijuana and several thousand dollars’ worth of growing equipment. The Sheriff’s Office confirmed that these locations were all connected and operated by the same group on Grays Harbor.

Two male suspects were arrested at the Grayland location, 35 years old and 29, both of San Jose Calif. They were taken to Pacific County Jail and are being held on $50,000 bail under suspicion of manufacturing marijuana.

Grays Harbor residents also have been calling in to identify more suspected growing facilities as well. On Thursday last week, police searched a house on Aberdeen Avenue in Hoquiam, that yielded 792 marijuana plants, and another residence on Third Avenue in Aberdeen, where they arrested two more suspects. Friday last week, officers processed evidence at two other residences, one on Morgan Street in Aberdeen and the other on L Street in Hoquiam, where three more suspects were arrested, two of which had been released following Tuesday’s raids. Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s Office is also investigating another possible site in the Wishkah Valley.

Scott said that it’s believed that those arrested were brought over from China, some under the impression that they would pay off their debt of transportation and other costs involved in coming to the U.S. after the crop was sold.

“That’s clearly just a form of human trafficking,” Scott said. “They’re indentured to the person that brought them over here.”

He added that although they are released, these 31 people could still be charged and given a summons to return to Grays Harbor if investigations turn up new evidence suggesting they were more deeply involved.

The 13 workers were held at Grays Harbor County Jail under the suspicion they were either an owner of one of the pot houses or were in some way a significantly involved participant in the operation and knew the facilities were illegal. According to County Prosecutor Katie Svoboda, the suspects could receive several different charges based on the individual’s involvement such as conspiracy to manufacture marijuana, conspiracy to deliver, and unlawful use of premises for drug purposes, which can range in jail sentences as low as zero to six months, or up to two to three years.

The language barrier has been a major hurdle throughout this whole incident, as very few of the suspects could speak English and were further limited by knowing either Mandarin or Cantonese dialects of Chinese. Just one court certified translator came from Seattle to assist the 44 suspects during the initial bookings and court appearance, who knew both dialects and spoke with them all collectively to ensure they understood the situation. Prior to the translator’s arrival, Scott said a smart phone translator app was their primary way of communicating with the suspects.

“We were relying heavily on the Google translate app,” said Scott. “We were using that to get basic concepts across, which is why we were grateful that the court interpreter agreed to stay after the hearing and help us.”

On KXRO Radio Friday morning, Scott said the FBI flew in translators from all over the country to help.

The release of the 31 individuals was particularly challenging language-wise, since they were being told they were released but could not return to their former houses that are now crime scenes, and the subjects had all of their phones and money confiscated.

“I didn’t want to just turn 31 people who have no means of support, no friends or family, don’t speak our language, don’t know how to navigate our system, out and essentially put them on the street,” said Scott, noting that the translator was initially puzzled why they were going to such lengths to help these people. “She asked, ‘Why are you doing this?’ And you know, many people were brought here under false pretenses under no fault on their own. They were basically scammed into doing this, and now they have nothing. If we don’t help them, who’s going to?”

The released suspects then called anyone they knew in the U.S. who could help them financially or to find lodging, with some calling family in New York, two others getting a ride to a friend’s in Seattle, several finding a home in Olympia, and 18 going to the Union Gospel Mission in Aberdeen.

According to one worker at the mission who wished to remain anonymous, they arrived essentially without any belongings but their one pair of clothes, which staff remedied by giving them extra clothes and some bags. Most of the 18 got family members from Seattle and other parts of Washington to pick them up and leave town Wednesday night, said the worker. He added that most of them appeared to be older, at least 50 he thought, and were an enjoyable crowd to be with.

“Obviously, these guys aren’t behind everything, they were just workers,” he said. “They were great. I took a picture with one of the guys. They were really nice, and one of them could speak a little English.”

Early Thursday afternoon, the mission saw the last man take a taxi to Seattle, the worker said.

“We got him some clothes, gave him lunch, and made sure he was ready for his journey to Seattle,” he added.

They were in good spirits, seemed to be friends with one another and did not appear to feel out of place after their time working in the pot growing houses, he said.

“They were pretty tight-knit,” said the mission worker. “They didn’t seem wide-eyed or anything to me. Weren’t upset they were here. This morning they were pretty joyful seeming.”

For Svoboda, she said this is the largest and most complex case she has ever dealt with in terms of the number of arrested people and the added layer of needing translators.

“Luckily, there are a number of certified interpreters in the Seattle area that can speak both Cantonese and Mandarin,” said Svoboda. “But obviously it’s not cheap since they have to be paid for their travel and time.”

Two new translators are scheduled to arrive for Friday’s 1 p.m. hearing where the 13 remaining suspects will be formally charged, one who knows Mandarin and the other Cantonese.

Svoboda said that around one third of the remaining suspects now have public defenders, and she has already gotten a couple calls from private defense attorneys, but will see who shows up at Friday’s hearing. Scott said authorities will now be busy investigating and checking the massive amount of evidence, and looking into the 50 search warrants issued in Tuesday’s raids.

Todd Bennington contributed to this story.