Realtor turned California homes into grow houses with millions wired from China, cops say

Authorities arrested three men — including a real estate agent — and raided seven Southern California homes on Thursday after prosecutors accused the men of using millions wired from China to transform the homes into illegal marijuana grow houses.

The arrests come after a 14-month investigation into the men, whose roughly 1,650 weed plants were seized Thursday morning at grow houses in Chino, Chino Hills and Ontario, the U.S Attorney for the Central District of California said in a news release. Prosecutors said they also seized at least $80,000 in cash raiding the home of the man accused of orchestrating the scheme.

Prosecutors said 37-year-old Lin Li, a real estate agent who goes by Aaron and lives in Chino, was the domestic mastermind of the operation, while 42-year-old Ben Chen of Alhambra tended to the marijuana plants and 44-year-old Jimmy Yu of Pasadena helped as a caretaker.

Each has been charged with one federal count of manufacturing, distributing and possessing with the intent to distribute marijuana, prosecutors said. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department worked with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to carry out the investigation and raid.

At least one neighbor got suspicious and complained in early 2018 that an “overwhelming” weed smell was coming from a home in Chino Hills, despite the fact that it appeared unoccupied, prosecutors said.

But other neighbors were relatively oblivious, ABC7 reports.

“I used to have people come up to my house and say, ‘It really smells like weed out here.’ I was like, ‘Really? Why would it smell like weed outside my house?’ ” said neighbor Sam Ahmed of Chino, according to ABC7. “But now, I think that’s probably what they were smelling.”

Though recreational marijuana is legal in California, there is still a black market that operates in the state, which Gov. Gavin Newsom has promised to go after, NBC reports.

Li crafted a scheme to buy the homes in suburban San Bernardino County, structuring the purchases to hide the real owners — and then he converted them to grow houses, with most of the pot they produced going to Nevada or California buyers, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The money that financed the scheme came from China, with Li paying taxes and utilities on the residences and managing them using shell companies, prosecutors said.

Yu and Chen helped distance Li from the illegal scheme’s day-to-day operations, and coordinated the sale of the pot beyond California, according to prosecutors.

To hide the sky-high power usage grow houses require, Li stole power straight from power lines using bypasses — creating a high risk for fires near the homes, prosecutors said.

U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said in a statement that in “states that have decriminalized marijuana, we have seen an influx of foreign money used to establish grow operations, with much of the marijuana being destined for out-of-state consumers.”

The operation in Chino was a dangerous example of that, Hanna said.

“By establishing illegal drug operations in residential neighborhoods, the defendants increased the risks to law-abiding homeowners, caused neighborhood blight, and stole power from utilities,” Hanna said.

Chinese wire transfers funded most of the grow homes’ down payments, prosecutors said.

The seven houses were worth a total of more than $4 million, according to prosecutors, and were purchased from July 2013 to September 2017.

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.