Pubdate: Sat, 04 Aug 2012
Source: Charlotte Observer (NC)
Copyright: 2012 The Charlotte Observer
Author: Jonathan McFadden


ROCK HILL Rubell Alexander has lived in Carnegie Estates -- a middle
class Rock Hill subdivision just off Saluda Road -- "ever since
there's been a Carnegie Estates."

Along with manicured lawns and teens playing basketball, she has
witnessed several cycles of crime trickle into the neighborhood --
from rampant break-ins to the "hoodlums" she said once brought their
conflicts into the area.

But none of that rattled her like finding out that two convicted drug
dealers spent six months in a two-story, four-bedroom home around the
corner from her house -- growing indoors what officials say was a
"high-grade" type of marijuana.

"It never looked like no drug house," Alexander said. "Being
discretenot associating (with neighbors)I guess that's how it was
going on for a long time."

That house -- at 630 Favorwood Drive and surrounded by homes with
market values reaching $130,000 -- captured the attention of federal
and local drug enforcement agents tracking two men.

Police say they were growing 128 marijuana plants valued at more than
$250,000 inside the rental home just a half-mile from South Pointe
High School and Saluda Trail Middle School.

York County drug enforcement agents arrested two men who they say had
converted three rooms into growing space for the marijuana plants and
another room to dry them out -- using a sophisticated filtration
system to get rid of the odor.

Once the drug was processed and packaged at the Rock Hill home agents
say it was shipped to Charlotte to be sold on the street.

Calvin Hoang, 27, and Phuong The Truong, 29 -- convicted drug dealers
who had served time in a federal prison -- were arrested last month
and charged with manufacturing and trafficking marijuana.

The house was vacant downstairs, but upstairs the walls were lined
with reflection paper and heavy-duty "grow" lights and wires hanging
from the ceiling, said Marvin Brown, commander of the York County
Multijurisdictional Drug Enforcement Unit.

The base of operation came as no surprise to county drug agents, who
say their method -- as well as their decision to use a suburban home
as a drug harvesting headquarters -- fits into a nationwide trend.

'Under the radar'

Not all marijuana distributors toil in rural fields covered with green
marijuana plants. Some have moved into suburbia, said Brown, who fears
aggressive policing of marijuana fields has driven them there.

"Historically, indoor grow is a pretty steady phenomena," said Chuvalo
Truesdell, special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration's
Atlanta field division, which oversees South Carolina and three other

It's also a trend among certain demographics, Truesdell said,
including Cuban, Vietnamese, Laotian and Caucasian growers.

Suburban neighborhoods make it easy for drug dealers and suppliers to
"cover" and engage in their activities unnoticed, he said.

"They'll move into middle class neighborhoods, move under the radar
and go unnoticed," Truesdell said. "It's quite an innocuous position
they want to be in," considering the high-grade product they're growing.

Indoor marijuana, mostly a type of unfertilized female plant, has a
higher concentration of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol -- the primary
ingredient in cannabis that affects the brain. It's capable of
affecting appetite, reducing aggression and producing other
intoxicating effects.

Higher THC concentrations help make marijuana -- already, according to
Truesdell, "the most abused, illicit substance in America" -- more

That shot at more money has resulted in drug enforcement agents'
busting up more such operations across the country:

* In early June, federal agents in New York arrested 13 men and women
in connection with a network of marijuana grow houses throughout
Miami, Fla., accusing them of harvesting at least 1,146 plants in
various houses since 2004.

* On June 29, police removed more than 700 marijuana plants from a
Mooresville, N.C., home and arrested four men in what they called the
police department's biggest drug bust ever.

* On July 13, police arrested a man and woman in Marina, Calif., after
finding 100 marijuana plants and an extensive drying operation in the
garage of their home in a residential neighborhood.

Not common 'street thugs'

People who grow indoor marijuana are making a "high grade" product,
Truesdell said, and can sell a pound for $5,000 -- at the least.

The people who grow the substance aren't "street thugs," he said.
"They're experts. It's no novice who does this."

Drug trafficking organizations employ transportation experts capable
of smuggling drugs across long distances, he said. They also have
power grid experts capable of setting up complicated grow systems.

"They find their niche and their levels of expertise," Truesdell

Identifying growers can be easy. Suburban homes outfitted with lattice
covers around heating and cooling units, or a lot of soil bags in the
yard needed for constant "re-plotting," are common indicators, he said.

Getting that information isn't easy.

Neighbors often are unwilling to speak to police for fear of
retaliation or becoming too involved, said Walter Beck, master deputy
with the Fort Mill office of the York County drug unit.

But neighbors who give authorities a tip might spur an investigation
that could result in a major arrest, he said.

Telltale signs that something might not be right in the neighborhood,
Beck said, include houses with tenants who are not home for extended
periods, who leave their windows covered all the time and who never
turn the lights on.

A history of drugs

Several months ago, agents with Charlotte's FBI Task Force asked York
County drug agents for help after suspecting that Phuong The Truong
began dealing drugs again when he was sighted frequently at the Rock
Hill home, Brown said.

On July 6, officials arrested Truong, whose criminal history includes
convictions for minor offenses such as speeding to convictions in
federal court.

In February 2005, a state grand jury named Truong in a 14-person
indictment filed in federal court in Georgia, where he was accused of
conspiring with several others to transfer drug money to Vietnam.

According to the indictment, Truong and the others were ordered to
relinquish thousands of dollars in U.S. currency along with the many
cars, computers and weapons they purchased with drug money.

Federal court documents show that in May 2006 Truong pleaded guilty to
conspiracy to commit money laundering -- cash they obtained by selling
ecstasy and marijuana throughout 2003 and 2004.

He was sentenced in 2010 to 32 months in federal prison, followed by
three months of probation.

In 2004, Truong was named in a federal indictment in North Carolina,
charged with two counts of conspiracy to distribute ecstasy and
marijuana, three counts of money laundering and one count of
conspiracy to distribute controlled substances.

Three years later, all the charges against him were dismissed.
Attempts to reach Truong's defense attorney for the case were
unsuccessful. The prosecutor who handled the case against Truong,
currently working in Turkey, was unreachable as well.

Truong remains in custody at the Mecklenburg County Jail, where he's
listed as a federal inmate charged with violating probation.

After Troung refused to talk about the Favorwood Drive home or any
possible associates, drug agents watched the area for several days.

Eventually, officers spotted Hoang entering the house, Brown said, and
once they obtained a search warrant, found the "grow house" in operation.

Police arrested and charged Hoang on July 10 with two counts of
manufacturing and trafficking marijuana. He was held on a $35,000 bond
before being released on July 11.

South Carolina and North Carolina law enforcement records show that
Hoang had no prior state convictions.

But in 2006, he pleaded guilty in federal court in North Carolina to
possessing ecstasy with the intent to distribute, according to the
same 2004 indictment that accused Truong of several drug and
conspiracy violations.

He was sentenced to three years' probation and 50 hours of community

A growing trend

Officials believe the marijuana growing operation started at the
Favorwood Drive home in February. The house was used for manufacturing
only, Brown said, and the drugs were sold primarily in Charlotte.

The State Law Enforcement Division valued the plants at $2,000 a
piece, Brown said. Once tests are completed in a state lab, the
confiscated plants will be incinerated.

It was York County's largest "grow house" bust so far this year, Brown

Last year, drug enforcement officials busted 17 grow houses in York
County. So far this year, they've found five.

One house in Lesslie a few years ago was filled with 998 marijuana
plants, Brown said -- the most ever found in a single York County home.

The Favorwood Drive house had been deeded to a family after a relative
died in 2011, according to the York County Register of Deeds office.
Several neighbors told police the family moved out of the house almost
six months ago -- around the same time officials say Hoang and Truong
began harvesting their "grow."

"The neighbors didn't have a clue," Brown said.

Neighbors 'shocked'

That was the consensus among residents of Carnegie Estates and the
surrounding streets a day after Hoang's arrest.

Amanda Weakland, a mother of two who lives just around the corner from
the drug house on Round Hill Court, said she "had no clue" about the
illicit activities going on.

She didn't know the people who lived in the house well, she said,
although she occasionally spoke to them in passing.

"They seemed like nice, normal people," she said. "I'm just totally
shocked that it was happening here."

Carnegie Estates is a safe place to live "for the most part," Weakland
said, with the exception of a few break-ins and vandalisms "in the

Closer to "the back" on Eagle Bluff Road -- a one-way street that
intersects with Favorwood Drive -- Tawanna Hope, a mother of three,
agreed that there have been a lot of break-ins.

Someone tried to break into a neighbor's home just three houses from
hers while the homeowner was still inside, she said.

Hope said the drug activities probably brought a lot of people into
the neighborhood who otherwise never would have reason to stop by.

Farther down Favorwood Drive, Kentrell Hines, who has lived in
Carnegie Estates for three months, said he didn't notice anything
strange about the people who lived in the house.

"There was nothing out of the way" about them, he said. "They just did
their own thing."

After listening to the details of the arrests, Hines was surprised to
find out what was going on just across the street.

Then it clicked, he said -- he had seen police cars patrolling the
area for several days before Hoang was arrested.

The neighborhood, Hines said, is "safe and calm."

"You would never think that would be going on," he said.
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