In quiet suburbs, neighbors are watching again
Times Staff Writers
April 20, 2007
Crime and danger seemed so removed from one family-friendly hillside community in Diamond Bar, the local Neighborhood Watch disbanded out of lack of need.
Or so its members thought.
This week, the same neighbors who let crime-watching efforts lapse were jarred by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies descending on a two-story, red-tiled-roof home where manicured pink roses lined the walkway and the quiet new neighbors had seldom been seen.
The operation was one of a dozen uncovered in the last month in normally quiet, upscale suburbs in or near the eastern San Gabriel Valley. The discoveries, which have yielded 10 arrests and more than 12,000 plants, have shaken the communities, prompting residents to question the long-held practice of respecting neighbors' privacy as long as they do the same.
"We have to go back to knocking on doors and taking flowers to our new neighbors," said Paulette Horton of Diamond Bar, who lives down the street from the formerly thriving criminal enterprise. "From now on, we're going to introduce ourselves to whoever's out in front of an empty house."
The pot busts have residents suddenly scrutinizing neighbors and calling police on newfound suspicions: a dry lawn, no bins out on trash day, windows that never open, a faint — or not so faint — smell of "skunk" in the air.
"Now I'm driving around thinking, 'Whose shades are closed?' " said Mehrbanoo Ostowari, 41, a 15-year Diamond Bar resident who was walking her miniature poodle at a neighborhood park. Part of the problem, she said, is a culture that may value privacy over interaction with neighbors.
"All people do is drive up, open up their garage, close it and go inside," she said.
For marijuana entrepreneurs, suburbia appears to be an increasingly desirable hiding spot for just those reasons.
"It seems like they're picking neighborhoods that are fairly nice — some of them very nice — where neighbors are friendly but not overly involved," said Lt. Jim Whitten of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Narcotics Bureau. "People are so busy with their lives coming and going they think they just won't be noticed, and it worked for a while, and it's probably still working in some places."
California has seen almost a quadrupling of indoor pot plants seized in the last three years, from at least 54,000 plants to nearly 200,000 in 2006. Last year, authorities shut down 50 home pot farms in Sacramento, Modesto and Stockton. Federal drug investigators tied those operations to a San Francisco-based Vietnamese crime ring.
The Los Angeles-area cases have strong similarities: recently purchased and spacious suburban homes converted into large-scale growing complexes; and illegally rerouted electrical wires that tapped directly into supply lines, avoiding huge power bills that might have attracted attention. Of the 10 people recently arrested, all but two were Asian, leading law enforcement officials to suspect a possible connection to Asian organized crime.
The houses, which often had attached garages, made it easy for growers to bring supplies in and out without their neighbors knowing. And each site used hydroponic technology — growing plants without soil. In some cases, sophisticated ventilation systems were installed to diffuse the strong odors from the plants.
At one home, sheriff's officials said a false foyer was built, shielding the view of the unconventional remodeling should anyone knock on the door.
The first major discovery was made March 14 — purely by chance. An electrical fire from an overloaded panel brought emergency crews to a spacious, peach-hued Chino Hills home.
Inside, firefighters found about 1,300 marijuana plants.
Susan Jabs, who lives next door, said she had no idea the two young Asian men who were fixing up the house were actually converting it into a massive indoor pot farm. The men would wave to her family. They even had a gardener.
When Jabs' family asked them about building a fence between their backyards, they didn't respond because they didn't speak English.
"We thought it was a language barrier," she said. "We were just grateful to have quiet neighbors."
A week after the Chino Hills discovery made the news, sheriff's officials acted on a tip from an alert resident in neighboring Diamond Bar. Something didn't seem right at a house on Eldertree Drive, the caller said. A good deal of construction had been done at the recently purchased home, but no one seemed to be living there. The shades were drawn and the lawn was brown.
It was the type of call sheriff's officials say they welcome. When that tip turned up more than 2,000 marijuana plants, the news generated more tips about other suspicious homes.
"We don't want to be Big Brother, but we want neighbors to alert us when there is something out of place," said Undersheriff Larry Waldie. "We need to protect suburbia."
Changes in suburban dynamics may be making it possible for such enterprises to operate, said Dowell Myers, a professor of urban planning and demography at USC.
"It's not like in the 1950s, when people were relatively homogenous and they had backyard barbecues that everyone in the neighborhood would attend," said Myers, an expert in urban growth and immigration patterns. "People now are not necessarily seeking companionship from neighbors."
Myers said that when new people move in, neighbors usually have three main questions: Do they have kids? Do they have a dog? Are they going to be noisy?
If none applies, and the newcomers don't seem particularly friendly, Myers said their homes quickly become "blank spots" on the block, attracting little attention.
He said the increasing cultural diversity in areas such as the San Gabriel Valley may have given the pot growers an additional screen.
Some Asian immigrants are worried that, in light of a suspected connection between most of the suburban pot farms and organized Asian crime, erroneous assumptions will be made about them.
Hsiao Yang, 42, returned from a visit to her native Taiwan to learn that a marijuana house had been operating across the street from her Diamond Bar home for months. Her limited English, she said, makes it hard to interact with her mostly white and Korean American neighbors.
"Maybe we don't talk to each other," she said. "And maybe we concentrate on ourselves." Still, she knows who her neighbors are and sees them daily when she is home.
In a neighborhood a few miles away, residents gathered Wednesday night in a Sheriff's Department RV for the first meeting of a newly formed Neighborhood Watch. Deputy Mark St. Amant briefed residents on the trend of pot houses in the San Gabriel Valley.
He also let them know about a new twist: At a raid that day in a nearby cul-de-sac, deputies found signs that the recent seizures might have some growers jumpy. Suspects at the house were found dismantling a major indoor marijuana farm.
"The difference is," he said, "they were shutting this one down."
Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.
Pot houses busted
Demographics for neighborhoods where the raids occurred
Earn $75,000 or more: 41.5%
Earn less than $75,000: 58.5%
U.S. and foreign born
Foreign born: 37.9%
U.S. born: 62.1%
Ethnicity of those foreign born
Notes: Numbers were calculated by totaling race, income and nationality data in Census 2000 for the census tracts in which the 13 houses are located. Calculation of dollar values may vary by law enforcement agency.
Sources: ESRI, TeleAtlas, USGS, 2000 Census, Times reporting. Data analysis by Doug Smith and Sandra Poindexter