TUKWILA, WASH. — First they noticed a spike in home-based marijuana growing operations. Seattle-area authorities shuttered 450 indoor pot farms in two years.
Then they zeroed in on the supply chain, targeting businesses that provide goods and services needed to grow the illegal weed indoors.
Then they went after a mortgage loan company they say financed houses in which the plants were grown.
After a 13-month investigation dubbed Operation Green Reaper, the multi-agency Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force arrested more than a dozen people, seized 15,000 plants and uprooted a suspected pot-growing network.
Instead of focusing on growers or smokers, federal authorities in the Seattle area clamped down last week on those they believe to be players in the behind-the-scenes infrastructure, specifically two gardening supply stores and a home mortgage broker.
"It is important for us to focus on the people who allow marijuana grows to exist," said Mark Bartlett, first assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle. "We had not focused on that in the past."
A federal grand jury in Seattle indicted the owners of Greenhouse & Garden Supply in Tukwila and Scitek Garden Supply in Auburn on suspicion of conspiracy to manufacture marijuana and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
The indictments alleged that the stores had peddled equipment used to manufacture marijuana: soil, pots, fertilizers, pesticides, lights, fans and watering systems as well as specialized items such as electrical diversion equipment and air filters. They also allegedly provided "starter plants."
They went far beyond "selling high-powered lights," Bartlett said. "They were providing start-to-finish services, advice and materials. They were even providing dumpsters."
Internal Revenue Services agents also scoured the records of Jet City Mortgage in Kent in connection to possible mortgage fraud related to homes where indoor marijuana crops were found.
Increased border security may have prompted drug dealers from British Columbia, Canada, to move operations south, law enforcement agencies said.
Individuals have grown marijuana in their basements for years, Bartlett said. But drug dealers' heightened level of organization is new.
"They are going out and buying nice houses in nice neighborhoods," he said. "They put in their own people and supply all the materials and do the distribution."
Many of the "grow homes" were in upscale residential neighborhoods and had every appearance of everyday homes, said Jodie Underwood, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration. And the garden supply stores in suburban bedroom communities looked like ordinary businesses.
Greenhouse & Garden Supply in Tukwila sits in a light-industrial and office park about one block from an Interstate 5 onramp, 12 miles south of Seattle. Neighboring tenants in the cluster of small businesses include a bagel bakery, a freight forwarding company and a tool shop.
A green logo next to Greenhouse & Garden Supply's signage shows a water bucket, light bulb and bottle of fertilizer. Lights were on inside, but a "closed" sign hung on the front door Friday. Federal agents served a search warrant there earlier in the week.
DEA investigators said one of the garden supply businesses ran newspaper ads showing marijuana leaves and pictures of growing equipment.
According to the affidavits, authorities found bags containing denuded marijuana stalks and potting soil at Scitek Garden Supply. They said the business was connected to indoor growing fields comprising a total of nearly 15,000 plants.
A few of the federal drug agency's investigations have focused on suppliers of growing equipment used for illegal operations, said Steve Robertson, a DEA special agent in Washington, D.C. In such cases, the investigators collect evidence revealing that the suspects "know the equipment was going to be used for illegal purposes."