Lassen County Sheriff’s Deputy Dustin Russell and K-9 Brinks pose last week in front of a bunch of drying marijuana discovered near Secret Valley. Photos submitted

Five in custody, 1,600 plants destroyed in bust

Citizen complaints regarding environmental issues led to three search warrants on five pieces of property in the North County resulting in five arrests and the eradication of approximately 1,600 marijuana plants.
Lt. Duane Little, an investigator with the CDFW, said the investigation discovered 70 to 80 environmental crimes on three parcels associated with the marijuana grows in addition to the alleged charges of unlawful cultivation of marijuana for sale and unlawful cultivation of marijuana and possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony. More than 15,000 marijuana plants were eradicated. He said the charges alleged at the other two parcels were similar — approximately 28 environmental crimes and 350 marijuana plants eradicated on both properties.

“There’s substantial evidence they were illegally cultivating” in violation of the county’s ordinance, Little said. “All of the environmental charges were triggered under Proposition 64,” California’s Marijuana Legalization Initiative, approved by the voters in November 2016, which makes the cultivation a felony.”
Little said the water violations might have threatened habitat for endangered species.

“Water is a valuable commodity anywhere, but it’s especially valuable in Lassen County,” Little said. “In this particular case, wetlands were being dredged up or impounded, streams were being trenched, litter and sentiments were being discharged into the streams … We realize how important water is in the high desert, and any substantial impact on it will be duly investigated.”

According to a statement from the Lassen County Sheriff ’s Office, “On June 22, 2017 the California Department of Fish and Wildlife obtained three search warrants for five properties on Secret Creek, on State Route 395 north of the town of Wendel. The Lassen County Sheriff ’s Office and CDFW had received complaints about marijuana cultivation activities reducing water flows in the creek.

“On June 23, 2017 personnel from the CDFW, environmental personnel from multiple agencies, LCSO, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service served the search warrants.
Approximately 1,600 plants were eradicated, approximately 80 environmental violations were identified and three firearms were seized at the scene. The environmental staff said that this was one of the worst sites they have ever seen.”

Five people were arrested on multiple felony charges involving cultivation of marijuana and the associated environmental damage which included unlawful grading, unlawful diversion, and impediment of state waters: Michael Lo, 53, of Burnsville, Minnesota; Chao Thao, 73, of Oroville, California; Wang Thao, 22, of Fresno, California; Eric Vang, 51, of Hampshire, Minnesota; Thong Vang, 57, of Fresno, California; and the investigation “will likely result in criminal filings on additional people,” according to the statement.
All five arrestees were booked into the Lassen County Jail and they each posted $30,000 bail after being booked.
Complaints to the CDFW Little said wardens received a number of complaints from landowners regarding the diversion and reduction of water in the Secret Creek watershed north of Carlo Road near Highway 395. Little said investigators obtained three search warrants — two for one parcel each and one for three parcels.
“Based on those complaints and details we conducted last year, we had suspicion marijuana cultivation was impacting the waterway,” Little said.

Michael Lo, Wang Thao, Eric Vang, Thong Vang and Chao Thao were arrested. Photo submitted

“We conducted aerial surveillance and located five parcels where marijuana cultivation may be impacting the stream and the surrounding wildlife community.” Little said the suspects allegedly made substantial alterations to the creek channels and banks in the Silver Creek watershed area.

“One of them was probably the most egregious site we’ve ever seen,” Little said, “where the tributary was substantially altered by trenching, impoundments, hydroelectric operations and so forth. That was the one with three parcels.”

He said investigators went to the properties, contacted multiple individuals and “concluded we had substantial environmental damage on each of the parcels associated with marijuana cultivation. We ultimately eradicated the grows, documented all the environmental damage and arrested five subjects.”
He said four or five warrants are outstanding and another four or five suspects are being sought.
According to Little, some suspects were not arrested due to reported health conditions and four or five other suspects evaded apprehension by “running off into the brush.”
The investigation is ongoing, according to Little.