Patti Sapone/The Star-LedgerThose charged in the $10 million marijuana bust include (top row from left) Minh Bui, Ngoc Bui, Tuan Dang, (bottom row from left) Nhung Thach, Quynh Bui, and Thu Nguyen. Residents living near homes police said were used to grow marijuana were shocked their neighborhoods were launching pads for a $10 million drug operation.
Last month, police found 3,370 growing pot plants in five rented homes in Monroe, Old Bridge, Millstone, Manahawkin and Manalapan. Money and packaging materials were found in a sixth home, also in Old Bridge.
Authorities said the sophisticated indoor growing scheme operated undetected for two years. Three people have been arrested so far, while another three are on the run.
“This is a network of individuals who have extensive knowledge of the method of mass producing marijuana plants indoors,” Attorney General Paula Dow said. “They selected large houses, frequently in pretty upscale neighborhoods, where the properties are widely spaced and they were not likely to garner direct attention.”
A two-story lavender house on 535 Beach Ave. in Manahawkin fit that description. It was down the road from a high school, located a quarter mile back from the road in a heavily wooded area. Police say the found 464 plants there.
Next-door neighbor Edna Collins said she never knew something illegal was going on until she saw a dozen police SUVs up and down the street.
“How would you know?” she said. “You would never see anything.”
Another 504 plants were found in another two-story home with a three-car garage at 38 Robbins Road in Millstone.
|Three people arrested in 10 million dollar marijuana bust in New Jersey
Steven Schiffman lives four doors away from the Millstone home but never saw anybody who rented the property.
“The only reason I knew anyone lived there was because the lawn was mowed and when we had the snow storm the driveway was cleared,” he said.
Schiffman said he wasn’t surprised the drug operation went unnoticed.
“Living here on this block I barely know my neighbors on each side,” he said. “We don’t have block parties or anything like that, so I’d be shocked if anyone else knew about this either.”
In Old Bridge, a neighbor was stunned to hear of the police investigation that found $60,000 cash and drug packaging materials in a beige two-story home at 187 Hidden Ct.
“I’m shocked,” said Samuel Manigault, who lives next door. “I never would have thought that.”
Police said they found 640 pot plants in another home in Old Bridge, at 47 Westley Rd. Many of the new homes on the dead-end street feature basketball hoops or children’s’ toys in front yards.
Only one person was ever seen in the alleged grow house, said neighbor Sofia Stavros, who lives two doors away on the dead end street.
“I’m just glad he’s gone,” she said. “It’s scary living next to this.”
A brick house at 15 Stayman Ct. in Manalapan was also used to grow marijuana, police said, and 698 plants were found there. Neighbors said they have seen a man and a woman drive up to the house and enter the garage, but almost never saw them outside.
Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency in Washington, D.C., said outdoor farms still produce the bulk of marijuana grown in the United States, but said indoor cultivation has become more popular.
Payne said indoor growing allows drug dealers to grow marijuana year round because weather is not a factor. In addition, plummeting real estate values in places like Florida and California have made it easier for criminals to obtain homes, he said.
“These criminal groups will buy or rent a house on a middle class, quiet street,” he said. “They’ll draw their blinds so no one knows what’s going on inside.”
At least one person had their suspicions, though.
Patti Sapone/The Star-LedgerThe Spotswood-Englishtown Road home in Monroe where a police officer accidentally stumbled into the operation because he smelled marijuana burning from a chimney. Jen Moody lives next door to the house at 558 Spotswood-Englishtown Rd where police said they uncovered the largest growing operation, with 1,064 plants. Although she didn’t think anybody lived there, her husband would see cars come and go in the middle of the night, making him suspicious, Moody said.
“He would poke his head out, trying to see what was going on,” she said.
Tom Haydon, Tiffani Garlic, Maryann Spoto and Chris Megerian contributed to this report.