DEA, Aurora Police raid dozens of homes in east Aurora during massive black market marijuana bust

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AURORA | Residents of the Tollgate Crossing neighborhood in east Aurora awoke to the thud of battering rams this morning as agents from the local branch of the Drug Enforcement Agency and other law enforcement officials raided dozens of homes and seized hundreds of marijuana plants. 

An estimated 200 officers from the DEA, Aurora Police Department and the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s office executed between 20 and 30 federal search warrants along the E-470 corridor, including several in the labyrinth of Tollgate Crossing subdivisions off of South Gun Club Road, starting at about 9 a.m. Wednesday.

The offices of the U.S. Attorney and the 18th Judicial District Attorney also played a hand in the investigation and the raids, which were expected to last throughout the day, according to Timothy Scott, acting assistant special agent in charge with the Denver division of the DEA.

Authorities were investigating a singular drug trafficking organization with apparent tendrils across multiple homes in east Aurora, according to Scott.

No arrests had been made related to the investigation as of about 11 a.m., according to George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District. 

“Nobody here has been accused of a crime,” Brauchler said. “Nothing that is taking place here is a suggestion of any criminality. Everybody involved in this is presumed innocent.

“Having said that … there are far more than 12 plants in front of this particular home.”

Per state law, Colorado residents are permitted to grow up to 12 marijuana plants per residence, barring special circumstances. There are different limitations for medical marijuana users. The prior household limit had been six plants per resident over the age of 21, although a new law that took effect earlier this year capped the number of plants per home at a dozen, regardless of how many people are living in the home.

Approximately 300 plants and grow lights lined the driveway and well-manicured lawn of a home on East Whitaker Drive at about 11 a.m., with DEA agents dressed in white coveralls still adding to the haul. The two-bedroom home was valued at slightly more than $400,000 this year, according to Arapahoe County property records. Another home that was raided, located around the block on East Grand Place, boasts a nearly identical appraisal value, according to the Arapahoe County assessor’s office. The owners of the latter home list their permanent address in Grand Junction.

Colorado has become a hub for illegal marijuana operations since voters approved Amendment 64, which permitted the sale of recreational pot, in 2012, according to Scott.

“What’s happened in Colorado is you’ve seen these criminal organizations from all over the country move here to grow marijuana and then ship it, the black market marijuana, out of state,” he said. “I think there’s a mystique out there that maybe you can come here and do whatever you want, and that’s just not accurate.”

Brauchler said a pound of black market marijuana that sells for about $1,000 in Colorado can net as much as $6,000 in states without legalized regulation of the drug, such as Florida.

“Colorado has a brand name to it for marijuana,” he said. “We’re looked at as kind of like the Nike of marijuana, like ‘just smoke it.’”

Brauchler said his office has seen a proliferation of crimes and cases tied to black market marijuana in recent years. He said there have been 11 first-degree murder cases tied to the “illegal transactions of marijuana” in his jurisdiction since legalization took effect six years ago. 

Brauchler added that his office hired a drug and narcotics prosecutor using grant funds generated by marijuana sales taxes shortly after he took office in 2012. He said that prosecutor spends more than 50 percent of her time dealing with litigation tied to black market marijuana.

“We really thought we would be focusing more and more on just opioids and methamphetamine, other Schedule 1 substances, but more and more of her time and resources have been gobbled up with trying to crack down on the black market marijuana grows,” he said.

Since 2014, the Denver division of the DEA has executed between 300 and 350 search warrants tied to black market marijuana, seizing approximately 65,000 plants and 10,000 pounds of weed, according to Randy Ladd, a DEA spokesman.

Tollgate Crossing residents said they were surprised by the police activity in their neighborhood early Wednesday morning. 

Mary Johnson, a local artist who has lived three houses down from one of the raids on East Whitaker Drive for about three years, said she had “no idea whatsoever” her neighbors were growing what appeared to be hundreds of pounds of marijuana.

“If they’re growing illegal marijuana down there, what else could they be doing?” Johnson said. “That’s in the back of my mind … like, what if there’s meth down there, too?”

Johnson said she and her husband pay quarterly fees for the well-groomed neighborhood’s homeowner’s association and metro district.

“I’m surprised,” Lisa Ouellette, a Tollgate Crossing resident who owns a local hair salon, said of the raids while walking her two dogs, Pork Chop and Kevin, Wednesday morning. “I mean, it’s such a quiet neighborhood.”