Fire leads to discovery of indoor marijuana cultivation operation

A fire ocurred Saturday at this home at 9140 Wren Ave.

A fire Saturday in Gilroy led to police discovering an indoor
marijuana operation where at least 300 mature plants were seized
with an estimated street value of $200,000.
There’s nothing atypical about the 9100 block of Wren Avenue – a pleasant neighborhood lined with kept homes and mowed lawns – save for the 300 mature marijuana plants once growing behind closed doors and concealed windows of a two-story residence.

Now vacant and locked up, the only remnants indicative of past occupants are spots of garbage on the browning lawn, and a children’s toy in the deserted back yard.

The discovery was made after the Gilroy Fire Department responded to a 911 call regarding an extinguished fire Saturday, which fire personnel determined was ignited by spliced electrical meter wires near the residence of 9140 Wren Avenue.

The incident caused a neighborhood power outage residents say began around 12 p.m., lasting for 24 hours.

“I was watching TV, and the power just – poof – went out,” said a neighbor, who lives several houses over. She said police officers had to hit the doorknob with a hammer to get it open.

“The cops came, and pounded on the doors, and all the rooms were covered in marijuana and lights,” said Mike Burnaman, 40, a neighbor who’s lived two houses down for one year.

Burnaman said he believed the former occupants, who have not yet been located, were renters.

“I’ve never seen them,” he said. “My wife just said she saw cars come and go.”

Police arrived at the scene and noted a strong odor of marijuana emerging from the home, according to a press release issued by the Gilroy Police Department. Officers were unable to locate the residents and forced entry, where they discovered and eventually confiscated garbage bags of yield from a blooming indoor pot garden.

The GPD’s official statement estimated the marijuana’s street value at $200,000.

Bob Cooke, special agent-in-charge of the San Jose regional office of State Attorney General’s Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, said price fluctuates between wholesale and street level. He approximated the price at $2,500 a pound, with each plant generating around two pounds.

“And that’s a low estimate,” he said.

Undercover operations are sprouting prolifically, Cooke said. Where as rural cultivation poses threats of being spotted from the air, operations in populated suburbia pose less risk under the secrecy of a roof.

From a law enforcement perspective, weed cultivators running covert businesses directly out of their homes is becoming more common, said Sgt. Rick Sung with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department.

“In the last month and a half, we’ve located at least four different homes that were running that kind of illegal operation,” he said.

Cooke explained growing indoors generates increased control of the environment, enabling dealers to generate a product bearing considerable amounts of the plants’ most desirable portion, called the bud.

“They’re doing a much better job,” he said. “They can get higher THC and get more product out of it – and harvest up to three times a year – if they grow indoors. It’s an organized crime. (The growers) are really well educated in that area. They know how to grow weed.”

Another trepidation coinciding with neighborhood pot gardens is the threat of house fires.

Remodeling for a marijuana nursery frequently includes splicing electrical wires and tapping into main power lines – a process Cooke said may go as far as jack-hammering through concrete in the garage to get into underground wires – just to bypass PG&E meters and the megabill that comes from growing a small jungle in the kitchen.

A customer service representative for PG&E speculated when someone splices a wire, they’re splitting the connection and then tapping back into it. He assumes the residents at 9140 Wren Avenue may have done this at a pole near their home.

Such illegal tampering with PG&E meters, along with shoddy rewiring jobs, has caused at least eight fires in San Jose this year, Cooke said.

“We’re seeing more and more of the indoor pot growers,” he said. “It’s very common. And with indoor growers comes an increased number in house fires.”

GPD Sgt. Chad Gallacinao explained the residents of 9140 Wren Avenue tampered with the monitoring of the power source, causing an electrical shortage on the outside and inside of the home. Growers who meddle with meter readings, he explained, are essentially stealing from PG&E to facilitate their operations.

“Those light bulbs and transformers, they suck up a lot of juice,” added Cooke, who said growers sometimes ransack houses by knocking out walls and gutting interiors to make room for longer rows of heat lamps and crops.

On the 9100 block of Wren, several neighbors on either side of the grower’s property said they’ve observed a peculiar spike in their electric bills for the past several months.

“Usually my power bill is around $80, and will get up to $130 in the summer,” said one neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous. “For the last four months, we’ve had three bills that were $200.”

The neighbor said she was just leaving her house Saturday when she smelled burnt rubber and saw a teen-ager dashing away.

“It was kind of suspicious,” said the woman, who’s lived in the house for 11 years and noted people coming and going away from the residence.

She recalls seeing a U-Haul truck and a rental van backing up to the garage on more than one occasion. She’s never seen the garage open, however, and said the windows always had sheets hanging in them.

Another neighbor, who also asked to not be named, said her house had seen a noticeable 20 percent spike in the electricity bill during the past five months – from an average of $115 a month to around $170.

She said nothing’s been confirmed, but noted after conferring with her neighbors, several had experienced similar increases.

“We all talked about it, and all the pieces fell into play,” she said.

She adds she never saw the same person twice emerge from the house, and thought it might be in foreclosure.

“One of the firemen told me the plants were four to five feet tall,” she said. “He said every single room was uninhabitable. The whole house was filled.”

Simi Pannu, who’s lived next door to 9140 Wren Avenue for seven years, said her September water bill, which usually falls around $85, was a staggering $600.

She said the water company told her and her husband it’s unusual for somebody to steal water. Someone from the water department did come to their house, Pannu said, but the only thing he found was one broken sprinkler.

“We never actually saw anybody in that (marijuana) house,” said Pannu. “Just garbage going in and out. It’s crazy, because I never thought something like this would be in our neighborhood.”

PG&E spokesman Matt Nauman said in 2009, PG&E recorded $8 million dollars in unauthorized use including energy theft – which he defines as bypassing or tampering with the meter.

He said PG&E does have investigators for energy theft scenarios, but reiterates, “PG&E is not a law enforcement agency. We also take our customers’ expectations of privacy very seriously, so if there’s an increase in load usage, it would be inappropriate for us to investigate what is causing the increase … or to investigate what a customer does with their energy use inside their house.”

Nauman does delineate the difference between breach of privacy, versus rightful cause for inquiry.

“Energy thievery is a different situation,” he said. “When we learn about it, we investigate and prosecute.”

Nauman said he couldn’t speculate on the theory that marijuana growers in the Wren house were responsible for hikes in their neighbors’ bills, or how an act of that specific nature is technically executed – had that been the case.

Nauman did say the growers may have found a way to “affect the meters’ ability to accurately measure the electricity being used.”

Gallacinao explained there are multiple ways for stealing energy, or bypassing meter reads.

“There are times when (the growers) tap into other people’s meter and run electricity from their neighbors meter back to their own house, so they don’t occur costs or usage for the high amount of electricity,” he said. “That’s one of the ways.”

Whether the occupants were owners or renters is still under investigation, according to Gallacinao. Regarding the homeowner, Gallacinao said unless they’re directly involved, there’s no criminal ramifications. However, he did say there could be civil action from PG&E and surrounding residents who were negatively affected by the owners’ probable or suspected negligence.

He urged community members to be aware of activities potentially hinting to illegal operations within their neighborhoods.

“Usually the owner of the property isn’t involved, and it’s a renter,” he said. “We want to make sure people are aware of the safety concerns, as these things can often times lead to fires and hazardous conditions.”

Gallacinao said signs often include people frequenting the house – but not living there, abnormal traffic coming and going from the property, concealed windows and doors and suspicious odors.

Cooke said urban growers are savvy about blending in, and can go unnoticed since families are usually working during the day and too busy to play watchdog.

“People need to be more vigilant about inspecting neighborhoods,” warned Cooke, adding growers sometimes have multiple houses. “They need to be involved with what’s going on around them.”

The investigation is continuing and anyone with information about this incident may call (408) 846-0350 or (800) 782-7463 to remain anonymous.

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