‘It is an open se­cret’

Hmong pot farm­ers seek­ing iden­tity, profit — or both

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - BY PAIGE ST. JOHN

The nar­cotics of­fi­cer stood on a windswept ridge near the Ore­gon bor­der and sur­veyed the fields cut into the hills be­low, a land­scape re­sem­bling a lost piece of wine coun­try.

The ter­races of Siskiyou County, how­ever, were planted in cannabis.

More than 1,500 Hmong farm­ers in the last two years have poured into this re­mote county, so vast it en­com­passes two west­ern moun­tain ranges.

By the sec­ond grow­ing sea­son in 2016, satel­lite images showed nearly 1,000 parcels laden with dark green crops. De­pend­ing on whose yield es­ti­mates and black mar­ket prices you rely on, the Hmong’s Siskiyou crop had a value as high as $1 bil­lion.

Where it was bound for, the grow­ers would not say.

Mouy­ing Lee, a busi­ness­man whose name sur­faces in ev­ery facet of

the Siskiyou mar­i­juana story, said with a dead­pan de­liv­ery that his clans­men came here “for the feng shui” of the moun­tains. He pointed out that most of the land­hold­ers are el­derly: Former fac­tory work­ers and me­chan­ics from Wis­con­sin. Old aunts and un­cles.

The abun­dant crop is grown for per­sonal use, Lee said. For poul­tices and shower rinses. For broth and tea.

County of­fi­cials don’t buy it. They say that Siskiyou is be­ing forced into the na­tion’s $49-bil­lion black mar­ket for mar­i­juana, spark­ing a mod­ern range war.

So much land has changed hands so quickly in cash deals that Sher­iff Jon Lopey is con­vinced he is fight­ing the hid­den hand of or­ga­nized crime.

Buy­ing up land in Mount Shasta Vista

Land spec­u­la­tors more than a half-cen­tury ago carved Siskiyou County’s un­build­able high desert and moun­tain slopes into half a dozen large sub­di­vi­sions with “va­ca­tion” parcels — many of which did not sell and later wound up trad­ing for $500 an acre on EBay.

Mount Shasta Vista rose along the west­ern edge of the val­ley, a floor of vol­canic de­bris crusted by a thin growth of stunted ju­niper and bit­ter-brush. Southerly breezes catch glacier-capped Shasta to the east, and Mt. Eddy on the Trin­ity Range to the west, squeez­ing through the val­ley in gusts that com­monly reach 70 mph.

Satel­lite images in 2014 of the fal­low de­vel­op­ment, with its 1,641 lots and mostly ab­sen­tee own­ers, showed a hand­ful of houses, some rusted junk and two mar­i­juana patches.

The Hmong be­gan ar­riv­ing in earnest in early 2015.

A third of the Mount Shasta Vista parcels bore Hmong names by the end of 2016. They sold at five times their as­sessed value, and the sub­di­vi­sion’s moon­scape sup­ported 508 tell­tale gar­dens of green.

With them came makeshift fences, trash piles and swim­ming pools con­verted into cheap water tanks. The new­com­ers hauled in soil, erected dry­ing racks from plas­tic pipe and slept in ply­wood sheds. If there was power, it came from a gen­er­a­tor, and a por­ta­ble toi­let stood sen­try at each gate — some­times along with an Amer­i­can flag.

A sim­i­lar scene played out in four other de­vel­op­ments through­out the county.

Lee’s house, un­usual be­cause it is a per­ma­nent struc­ture, sits in the cen­ter of the 2 ½-acre plots ded­i­cated to grow­ing mar­i­juana. Six cars and three water trucks are parked out front.

The stout 43-year-old is a child of the Hmong refugee camps in Thai­land. He said he worked in Fresno as a com­puter pro­gram­mer and con­trac­tor be­fore join­ing the mi­gra­tion to Siskiyou County in 2016 to build the small wood sheds grow­ers live in.

Cal­i­for­nia per­mits mar­i­juana cul­ti­va­tion for per­sonal med­i­cal use, but leaves lo­cal gov­ern­ments to de­cide how much — if any — to al­low.

It took a sin­gle grow­ing sea­son in 2015 for Siskiyou County su­per­vi­sors to ban out­door cul­ti­va­tion, pun­ish­able by a fine. The crops could also be de­stroyed if author­i­ties de­ter­mined they were for com­mer­cial sale.

As un­ease with mar­i­juana grew into com­plaints and then scru­tiny from county su­per­vi­sors, Lee or­ga­nized a com­mu­nity col­lec­tive. Af­ter the first har­vest of 2015, the Hmong coun­cil handed out frozen tur­keys as a ges­ture of good­will.

When that didn’t calm the wa­ters, Lee re­tained lawyers from the le­gal group Pier 5 — cham­pi­ons of con­tro­ver­sial clients, such as the Black Pan­thers and San Fran­cisco Chi­na­town mob­sters.

Public records show Lee and a rel­a­tive, Vince Wavue Lee, tracked down the ab­sen­tee own­ers of more than 50 lots, paid them above­mar­ket prices and then trans­ferred the prop­er­ties as “gifts” to other Hmong.

They were friends and fam­ily mem­bers who didn’t like to con­duct busi­ness in English, the pair said. Some­times they fronted the money, trust­ing they would be paid back. They said they made no profit.

Mouy­ing Lee said the sub­di­vi­sions in Siskiyou County are the start of a new home for his peo­ple.

“To see the im­age of the moun­tain form, this is a bet­ter place for the el­ders,” he said. He likened the vol­canic ranges to the karst out­crops and ver­dant jun­gle of north­ern Laos.

“It is like Long Tieng,” he said. “It is the dream town.”

Hmong leader sees pot as new opium

Long Tieng was the CIA’s largest air­base in Laos dur­ing what be­came known as the Se­cret War.

Its sin­gle run­way served as a stag­ing point for he­li­copter raids and Air Amer­ica sup­ply drops to Hmong hill fight­ers dur­ing the Viet­nam War. Wit­tingly or not, it also was a hub for mov­ing the opium that Hmong high­land vil­lagers ro­tated through their corn crops. A city of more than 30,000 Hmong sprang up around the cloud-shrouded base, with mud streets and hap­haz­ard sheds built from flat­tened fuel drums.

When the Amer­i­cans pulled out in 1975, thou­sands of Hmong col­lab­o­ra­tors were slaugh­tered or fled to refugee camps in Thai­land. Ul­ti­mately, some 300,000 found asy­lum in the United States, set­tling in close-knit en­claves largely spread among three states: Wis­con­sin, Min­nesota and Cal­i­for­nia.

Some Hmong com­mu­nity lead­ers are dis­tressed to see strug­gling im­mi­grants again grab­bing at what seems like easy cash.

Chat boards carry tales of grow­ers earn­ing $10,000 a month. En­tire fam­ily clans are in­vested in the mar­i­juana op­er­a­tions.

Aunts, cousins and el­ders put their names on deeds or show up at har­vest. One 2015 raid on a Siskiyou County mar­i­juana pro­cess­ing house found 23 peo­ple in­side, ages 19 to 77.

“It is an open se­cret,” said a Hmong leader in Sacramento, seek­ing anonymity be­cause his past can­dor re­sulted in death threats.

In his eyes, mar­i­juana is the new opium.

He also strug­gles with the de­sire to cre­ate a new Hmong en­clave in the moun­tains — a drive he be­lieves holds his peo­ple back from as­sim­i­lat­ing.

“There is a rea­son af­ter 40 years we are still on wel­fare,” he said.

Cal­i­for­nia paved the way for the black mar­ket in 1996, le­gal­iz­ing med­i­cal mar­i­juana in terms so loose that grow­ers can re­main on the right side of the law right up un­til they take their crop to mar­ket. By 2010, the state grew enough cannabis that it could pro­vide more than three-quar­ters of the il­le­gal mar­i­juana sup­ply in the coun­try. That’s enough to make mar­i­juana Cal­i­for­nia’s largest ex­port com­mod­ity, eclips­ing al­monds, dairy, wal­nuts, wine and pis­ta­chios com­bined.

Large tres­pass grows on public lands re­main a law en­force­ment tar­get. But a 2013 fed­eral memo promised to ig­nore small-scale trade in pot-le­gal states, and Cal­i­for­nia set no lim­its on what con­sti­tutes per­sonal use.

The re­sult: the ubiq­ui­tous 99-plant grow, enough mar­i­juana to keep 420 daily smok­ers supplied for a year, but one plant be­low the thresh­old for a five-year fed­eral prison term. There are now hun­dreds of them in Siskiyou County.

State and fed­eral agen­cies would not com­ment on the role of the Hmong in the black mar­ket. A 2010 re­port by the High In­ten­sity Drug Task Force, how­ever, noted that Asian traf­fick­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions — Hmong and Lao­tian specif­i­cally — dom­i­nated pri­vate prop­erty cannabis pro­duc­tion.

Farm­ers push back on mar­i­juana ban

Spurred by com­plaints of slat fences, water trucks tear­ing up roads, fer­til­izer runoff and trash, Siskiyou County su­per­vi­sors banned out­door cul­ti­va­tion in Novem­ber 2015.

“They treat the Hmong as un­wel­come,” Mouy­ing Lee said. “We make the econ­omy grow: Wal-Mart. Trac­tor Sup­ply. But still they are ig­no­rant about the peo­ple.”

The lawyers at Pier 5 pep­pered of­fi­cials with let­ters threat­en­ing lit­i­ga­tion if Siskiyou County en­forced the ban. Lee and his sup­port­ers col­lected sig­na­tures to put the mar­i­juana ban to a coun­ty­wide vote on the June 2016 bal­lot. They reg­is­tered Hmong farm­ers to vote.

County Clerk Colleen Set­zer, dou­bling as the county reg­is­trar, said she was alarmed by the voter cards turned in. Scores reg­is­tered at the same house — 55 at Lee’s ad­dress. Nearly 200 listed no home ad­dress at all, or the par­cel num­ber of a va­cant lot.

For six months, Set­zer for­warded her sus­pi­cions of voter fraud to the state. In­ves­ti­ga­tors from Sec­re­tary of State Alex Padilla’s of­fice did not show up un­til six days be­fore the June vote to ques­tion 39 newly reg­is­tered vot­ers. The in­ves­ti­ga­tors sought a sher­iff’s es­cort when they learned they had to go into the mar­i­juana fields.

They could not find most of the 39 vot­ers. The search was de­scribed in news re­leases is­sued by Pier 5 lawyers as “county of­fi­cials armed with as­sault ri­fles” who “threat­ened Hmong cit­i­zens … if they at­tempted to vote.”

Lori Shel­len­berger, a vot­ing strate­gist with the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union in San Diego, said: “It was like Mis­sis­sippi in the 1960s.”

Many of the al­le­ga­tions of voter in­tim­i­da­tion turned out to be false. Even so, two days be­fore the Siskiyou vote, Shel­len­berger sent a mes­sage to Padilla’s chief of staff say­ing the sec­re­tary of state looked bad in­ves­ti­gat­ing mi­nor­ity vot­ers and sup­port­ing the sher­iff ’s ac­tions.

The next morn­ing, Padilla’s of­fice switched di­rec­tions, send­ing an emer­gency re­quest to the U.S. Jus­tice De­part­ment seek­ing elec­tion mon­i­tors in Siskiyou. It di­verted its own poll watch­ers to the far north county.

The ini­tia­tive failed to pass, leav­ing the grow­ing ban in place.

Vot­ing records ob­tained by The Times show more than 100 of the ap­prox­i­mately 600 Hmong vot­ers reg­is­tered in Siskiyou County have mail­ing ad­dresses else­where.

Set­zer said the sec­re­tary of state’s of­fice has not told her the fate of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The agency de­nied re­quests by The Times for details.

Felony cases tough to build, D.A. says

The old gold min­ing town of Yreka for decades sold water to any­one want­ing it. But in July 2016 the town coun­cil de­clared the Hmong farm­ers’ use “un­de­sired” and cut off sales to those liv­ing out­side of city lim­its.

Still the grow­ers came to Siskiyou.

State forestry agents tick­eted those who lighted cook­ing fires in the high-dan­ger scrub, and Cal­i­for­nia High­way Pa­trol of­fi­cers pulled over un­per­mit­ted water trucks. Still more grow­ers came. By mid-sum­mer 2016, Lopey, the sher­iff, con­cluded that fin­ing the grow­ers was use­less. Sher­iff ’s vol­un­teers teamed up with the county prose­cu­tor’s of­fice and state Fish and Game of­fi­cials to raid the fields.

Armed of­fi­cers — sea­soned by years of chas­ing Mex­i­can drug car­tels through public forests — swooped in on el­derly Asian cou­ples eat­ing break­fast in their sheds and trail­ers.

“I was fright­ened worse than the Viet­nam War, when my par­ents were try­ing to pro­tect us,” Kao Vang, 48, said in an af­fi­davit filed in lit­i­ga­tion against the county. Vang said she hid in a bush while deputies cut down mar­i­juana and took her hus­band to jail, and re­mained there long af­ter they left.

They cleared as many as three fields a day, raid­ing 113 grows in four months, seiz­ing gen­er­a­tors and water pumps and de­stroy­ing 9,200 cannabis plants and 3,000 pounds of mar­i­juana. Fifty Hmong were hauled off to jail.

The sher­iff’s cru­sade made him con­tro­ver­sial. The harsh­est de­trac­tors called him a thug.

Three times the lawyers at Pier 5 filed a fed­eral civil rights suit against the sher­iff and Padilla, al­leg­ing racial per­se­cu­tion. Three times a fed­eral judge threw the claim out, rul­ing fi­nally this month that there was no ev­i­dence Siskiyou County’s mar­i­juana or­di­nance was any­thing other than a re­ac­tion to the ex­plo­sion in cannabis cul­ti­va­tion.

Lopey — a former Marine who af­ter his tour in the Philip­pines joined the Army Re­serve to staff a civil­ian af­fairs desk in Kabul, Afghanistan — har­bors no sense of gray in the law. That in­cludes pro­tect­ing his county from “dope,” even as the state pre­pares to al­low com­mer­cial sales be­gin­ning in Jan­uary.

“Th­ese peo­ple are com­ing in here. They have no re­spect for us. They have no re­spect for our laws,” he said. “Then they have the nerve to come here to grow 200 plants and po­ten­tially a $2-mil­lion crop.”

The sum­mer siege re­sulted in fewer than two dozen crim­i­nal cases. Af­ter Cal­i­for­ni­ans in Novem­ber made il­le­gal mar­i­juana cul­ti­va­tion a mis­de­meanor, county judges dis­missed those.

Siskiyou County’s dis­trict at­tor­ney said it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to build a felony case that will stand. Af­ter two years of in­ter­dic­tions, seizures and ar­rests, he is no closer to fig­ur­ing out the con­trol­ling forces be­hind the mar­i­juana surge.

All that’s left, he said, is to seize and de­stroy, “to make the nest un­com­fort­able.”

By Lopey’s es­ti­mate, the raids de­stroyed as much as 20% of the 2016 crop. The rest pops up now and then on roads headed east.

In late Fe­bru­ary, a Utah High­way Pa­trol of­fi­cer pulled over Yia N. Thao, 57, on In­ter­state 80. The of­fi­cer said he found opium and metham­phetamine in Thao’s glove box, and 180 pounds of vac­uum-sealed mar­i­juana in the back seat and trunk. Thao had been paid $2,000 to drive the cannabis out of Cal­i­for­nia, the of­fi­cer wrote.

Thao pleaded guilty to felony traf­fick­ing charges. Two weeks af­ter post­ing bail, he was in­ter­cepted again — this time headed east on In­ter­state 94 in North Dakota with what a po­lice re­port said was 83 pounds of mar­i­juana.

Deed records show Thao bought a small lot in north­ern Siskiyou County, which satel­lite images show was planted with some 80 dark bushes. He trans­ferred the deed to a woman ar­rested along­side him in North Dakota.

Their prop­erty tax bill went to an­other Siskiyou County ad­dress, while their voter reg­is­tra­tions gave a third county ad­dress used by 34 other Hmong vot­ers.

For con­tact in­for­ma­tion, Thao’s com­pan­ion gave the email ad­dress of Mouy­ing Lee.

Af­ter win­ter of loss, the raids start anew

Af­ter most of the grow­ers re­turned to Min­nesota or Fresno for the win­ter, 51year-old Bao Kelly Xiong and her sis­ter, Mee Xiong, 58, hung on.

It had been a hard sea­son. A third of the 99 cannabis plants on the land bought with fam­ily money had died. The fear of raids weighed so heav­ily that Bao af­fixed her med­i­cal mar­i­juana pre­scrip­tion to a board out­side — fac­ing up so it would be vis­i­ble to nar­cotics of­fi­cers con­duct­ing fly­overs.

The sis­ters lived amid the tall cannabis they tended, in low huts of black plas­tic and empty chicken ma­nure bags lashed with orange bal­ing twine, their mat­tresses on the ground. At night they eased their aches with a rinse of mar­i­juana stems and leaves steeped in water.

When Bao left camp one Novem­ber morn­ing to drive to Sacramento, Mee did not see her off. Too much mar­i­juana bath, Bao thought. She re­turned that night to find Mee still in her shel­ter, be­neath a thick pile of blan­kets, dressed in two lay­ers of pa­ja­mas and a sweat suit. Be­side her was a char­coal bra­zier used for warmth. Its fumes had killed her.

Three weeks later, a 56year-old col­lapsed as he rose in an old trailer warmed by a gen­er­a­tor be­neath its floor. A third death was in De­cem­ber, a Lao­tian man poi­soned by the gen­er­a­tor be­side his shed.

It was five months be­fore Bao Kelly re­turned to Mount Shasta Vista. She keened as she piled Mee’s mat­tress and a small blue suit­case into the back of a bor­rowed pickup for a run to the county dump.

Then she stayed on for the next sea­son.

Lopey’s posse came down hard af­ter win­ter, raid­ing 52 plots in July — triple the pace of 2016.

To build sup­port for his cam­paign, the sher­iff has given tours of the mar­i­juana fields, taken a state sen­a­tor over­head by he­li­copter and driven a re­porter down the bumpy roads at a fast clip, point­ing out the high fences and pick­ups with plates from Min­nesota and Wis­con­sin. A re­quest for emer­gency state aid to fight il­le­gal mar­i­juana grow­ing is sit­ting on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

He wore a wire to record two grow­ers who al­legedly of­fered him $1 mil­lion to grant pro­tec­tion to their Mis­souri-bound crops. The pair were charged ear­lier this month on sus­pi­cion of bribery.

“This is war,” the sher­iff said.

Pho­to­graphs by Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

AN OF­FI­CER with the Siskiyou County Sher­iff’s De­part­ment re­moves plants from a mar­i­juana farm last month near Dor­ris, Calif. County su­per­vi­sors banned out­door cul­ti­va­tion af­ter one grow­ing sea­son in 2015.

LAST SUM­MER, Siskiyou County Sher­iff Jon Lopey con­cluded that fin­ing pot grow­ers was use­less. Of­fi­cials teamed up to raid the fields.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS by ROBERT GAU­THIER Los An­ge­les Times

AUTHOR­I­TIES WITH the Siskiyou County sher­iff’s mar­i­juana erad­i­ca­tion team round up crops from a Hmong-owned farm last month near Dor­ris, Calif.

MOUY­ING LEE sees Siskiyou County as the start of a new home for his peo­ple. He says Hmong pot farm­ers are be­ing sin­gled out by law en­force­ment, and that the crop is for per­sonal use. Author­i­ties don’t be­lieve him.

Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

BAO KELLY XIONG, 51, weeps as she clears the be­long­ings of her sis­ter Mee Xiong, 58, from the pot farm in March. Mee died last win­ter. She was poi­soned by fumes from a char­coal bra­zier that warmed her hut at night.

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