Charges against five people arrested on suspicion of cultivating more than 30 marijuana plants at four locations in Montezuma County and one in Cortez were dismissed Thursday, but four other people are facing federal indictments over the grow operations.
Eight people were arrested during a Aug. 28 raid after a multi-agency investigation into several illegal marijuana grow operations. The investigation targeted two properties on County Road V, one on County Road 22, one on County Road K.3 and another on South Chestnut Street in Cortez.
The raids were connected to a Chinese or Chinese-speaking drug ring that has been under investigation since a large raid in Rifle in 2016, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Grand Junction. An estimated $500,000 in cash and gold bars, 4,300 plants and 500 pounds of processed marijuana were seized, according to the DEA.
After the raid, Danny To, Hoa Chu, He Daining, Mai Luc and Yong Tang were arrested and were each charged with one identical count of marijuana cultivation of more than 30 plants, a Class 3 felony. On Thursday, the five defendants appeared in 22nd Judicial District Court before Judge Todd Plewe.
District Attorney Will Furse said the evidence against the five defendants shows they were at the grow site at the time of the arrest, but there was not substantive evidence to support guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
“A prosecutor’s responsibilities and ethical obligations are to prosecute cases that can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and I could not, in good faith, make that record, and consequently, sought dismissal in these cases,” Furse said in an interview after the court hearing.
He cited case law in the Colorado Court of Appeals case People v. Duran, which found the mere presence and association with others at the scene of a crime, even if they aware of the illegal acts, is not enough to show complicity.
Furse commended the “good faith effort” of law enforcement to gather evidence. Through no fault of their own, he said, local and federal agencies were unable to provide specific evidence of guilt.
The state cases have been dismissed, but the federal government has indicted four other people. Furse said the federal case is stronger than the state charges.
“It seems as though those cases against the federally indicted individuals is very strong,” Furse said in an interview.
Jimmy Dang, Lisa Yang, Qi Lun Wu and Sang Teng were indicted by a grand jury in U.S. District Court in Denver in September. They are facing a charge that they knowingly and intentionally manufactured and possessed with intent to distribute 1,000 or more kilograms of marijuana and 1,000 or more plants of marijuana. Teng was among the eight initially charged with cultivating marijuana, but his case was dismissed after federal distribution charges were filed against him. Dang, Yang and Wu were arrested later.
Three of the four defendants own Chinese restaurants in Cortez, according to court documents.
Wu and Dang own the Ocean Pearl Chinese Restaurant, 300 E. Main St., and Yang owns the Hong Kong Restaurant, 332 W. Main St., according to case records and the Montezuma County Assessor’s Office.
Teng was one of the eight arrested in August, but the local charges against him were dismissed after the federal indictment. Furse said he believes the other two defendants arrested in August are subject to removal and have likely been turned over to immigration officials.
Steve Knight, resident agent in charge of the DEA office in Grand Junction, said the illegal grow operations in Montezuma County are part of a larger investigation of Chinese marijuana growers in western Colorado, including Parachute, Rifle and Grand Junction.
“They weren’t all working together, but they knew each other, so it was a part of a larger investigation,” he said, adding that the probe continues.
Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin worked with the DEA to investigate the suspected grow operations.
After the five cases were dismissed Thursday, Nowlin said he believes the five were involved in the illegal grow. The investigation showed them cultivating fields and working inside homes to process the marijuana, he said.
“We did our job,” he said.