Jefferson County Chinese drug cartel did multi-million dollar business
Measuring the contraband recovered from the six-location drug bust last week, law enforcement now has a better idea of the size of the illicit drug operation going on in Jefferson County. Officers confiscated eight tons of processed marijuana and 17,704 plants with an estimated street value of $25 million during a June 14 multi-location raid.
Multi-million dollar operation
Investigators noted the group harvested every three to four months, putting potential gross income at between $75 and $100 million a year. Sgt. Kent Vander Kamp, director of the Central Oregon Drug Enforcement team, says the cartel harvested 10 times more marijuana than would supply users in Oregon. "All this stuff they're growing is leaving the state," said Vander Kamp, "Oregon supplies the New York market." New York legalized recreational marijuana in March 2021.
The people arrested
During the raid, officers arrested six people: Dong Hai Zhu, 51, of Beaverton; Sky Hong He Su, 39, of Portland; Wemjian Yan, 36, of Brooklyn, New York; Sam Chen, 45, of Madras; and Robert Joseph Dale, 64, of Madras, who owned or co-owned four of the six properties in the raid.
Vander Kamp points to Dale and his domestic partner, Li Fen So, as the leaders of the local operation. They're still investigating others in Portland and in China. Dale says he's the unwitting landlord and was unaware of illegal activity on his leased properties. (See companion story on this page.) The six face charges of unlawful manufacturing and delivery of marijuana, both felonies, and possession of marijuana, a misdemeanor. Dale was also charged with unlawful possession of a firearm, a misdemeanor. Five of those arrested were cited and released. Dale spent 17 hours in jail and posted $6,000 bond, 10% of his $60,000 bail.
Vander Kamp says the operation involved transporting drugs to Portland to distribution elsewhere. It involved money laundering through restaurants or other retail means. The records and news releases do not identify any Jefferson County restaurants associated with this operation.
"It's an elaborate operation and they've been doing it with impunity for the last couple of years," said Vander Kamp.
More than two years ago, a neighbor of one of the properties, who doesn't want their name used, called police to report suspicious activity and an obnoxious odor. "We would have that skunk smell even in our house," said the neighbor. The neighbor saw the people in two side-by-side homes building drying racks, loading and unloading things into vans, and saw them carrying plants. "Then brown oozy stuff started creeping down the outside of the house," aid the neighbor. "Nobody lived there. The doors were closed, and windows were shut."
Police informed the neighbor that they were aware of the situation and asked for patience.
Vander Kamp says these investigations take a long time. "We started a surveillance on the operation," said Vander Kamp. "One site would lead to another and yet another." They needed to identify people, follow bank records and perform electronic surveillance. They used intelligence analysts from the National Guard and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Vander Kamp says they needed time to build a case that would hold up in court.
And they scheduled their raid for the right time in the growing cycle.
Along with the men they arrested, police detained and interviewed 10 laborers. Vander Kamp said every last one of the laborers came to the United States through Mexico. All were men except one woman who was married to one of the men.
"Many came to the U.S. with the hope for better lives," said Vander Kamp. "This group capitalized on that opportunity and took advantage of them. Some may not have known this was illegal." The neighbor didn't see any abuse or violence. "They worked all the time. Their lights were on late into the night." Communication with law enforcement involved multiple translators for the various dialects. Vander Kamp doesn't think they would call themselves slaves. "They felt like they were obligated to be here, but they felt like they could leave tomorrow." Many, says Vander Kamp, are paying off debts to the people who paid for their trip to the United States. The laborers didn't have their own transportation. About half of them had phones. Vander Kamp says some plan to go back to China, some will look for extended family in other parts of the U.S. The neighbor saw the raid, the SWAT vehicles, the police loud-haling "We have a search warrant. Come out with your hands up, and no weapons." Agents stayed most of the day clearing out the warehouses. The people are back in the houses again.
Case to go to court
Now the case moves through the court process. Agents will present their cases to the Jefferson County District Attorney and the United States Attorney's Office to decide whether the suspects will face federal charges or state charges.
"I hope they have enough to nail them," said the neighbor.
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