3 arrested after sheriff's deputies, ICE agents raid marijuana grow houses in and around Chino

CHINO, Calif. (KABC) -- After a multi-agency raid on Thursday, three men were arrested on federal charges alleging they took part in a scheme that used millions of dollars wired from China to purchase seven homes in San Bernardino County that were converted into illegal marijuana grow houses.

The three men arrested were identified as Lin Li, also known as Aaron Li, 37, of Chino. He is accused of being the U.S.-based coordinator of the alleged scheme; Ben Chen, 42, of Alhambra, who allegedly took care of the marijuana grows; and Jimmy Yu, 44, of Pasadena, a second alleged grow-house caretaker, according to a press release from the Department of Justice.

According to the Department of Justice, the three were involved in a scheme that used millions of dollars wired from China to purchase the homes. The complaint charges the three men with one count of manufacturing, distributing and possessing with the intent to distribute marijuana.

Together with the arrests, law enforcement officials executed search warrants at Li's home and seven marijuana grow houses in Chino, Ontario and Chino Hills. As a result, authorities seized approximately 1,650 marijuana plants, as well as $80,000 in cash at Li's house.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department and agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement formed a task force and on Thursday morning conducted simultaneous raids. It was all the result of a 14-month investigation that came about after a neighbor complained of an overwhelming smell of marijuana coming from one of the Chino Hills home.

The U.S. Attorney's Office has begun the process to forfeit the seven homes, which are cumulatively worth more than $5 million.

Li, a real estate agent, orchestrated a scheme that purchased houses through transactions designed to conceal the homes' true owners, converted the houses to marijuana grow operations, and trafficked marijuana, with most of the processed marijuana being sold to customers in California and Nevada, according to a 120-page affidavit in support of the criminal complaint.

Officials say these transnational criminal organizations put neighborhoods at risk by diverting electricity from power lines to steal power and create a fire risk, along with chemical in the homes to grow the plants.

"Investigators believe Li attempted to distance himself from the conspiracy by using Chen and Yu to manage day-to-day operations at the grow houses, to help with out-of-state distribution of the marijuana, and to return marijuana sale proceeds. Li also used bypasses to physically divert electricity directly from power lines, thus stealing power from the electric companies, hiding the grow houses' high power usage from law enforcement, and creating fire risks in neighborhoods," the press release stated.

Down payments for most of the grow houses were traced back to wire transfers from China, according to the affidavit, and several of the properties were bought by "straw buyers."

The titles for most of the homes were transferred to limited liability companies associated with Li, the press release stated.

Residents say they were shocked to learn what was going on right under their noses.

"I use to have people come up to my house and say, 'It really smells like weed out here.' I was like, 'Really? Why would it smell like weed outside my house?' But now I probably think that's probably what they were smelling," shared Chino resident Sam Ahmed.
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