"While law enforcement in New Jersey has encountered high-tech indoor marijuana growing operations in the past, we have not seen anything to match the volume of production of this criminal enterprise," said state Attorney General Paula T. Dow.
The bust might not have happened if Officer Thomas Lucasiewicz had been suffering from a head cold. The Monroe Township cop was on patrol Feb. 12 when he smelled burning marijuana in an upscale Middlesex County community.
At first, Lucasiewicz thought somebody might be smoking a joint in a car parked nearby, said Sgt. Steve Jones, a state police spokesman.
"But with his bloodhound senses, he realized it was much stronger than he first thought," Jones said. "He followed his nose. Then he saw smoke rising from a chimney."
Overpowered by the scent, Lucasiewicz called his squad. When backup arrived, Lucasiewicz knocked on the door of the single-story ranch house.
They were greeted by a surprised man, "the gardener, essentially, who was burning some of the unusable parts of the plants in the fireplace," Jones said.
Lucasiewicz arrested the gardener, Thu N. Nguyen, 44, and, realizing he had uncovered a huge grow operation, called in the state police.
Inside the rented home, investigators found 1,064 plants in four cultivation areas set up in the basement and the master bedroom. In the garage they found 50 pounds of packaged pot.
During the following week, state police raided five more rented homes in Millstone Township, Old Bridge, Manahawkin and Manalapan.
"They each had been turned into pot factories," Jones said.
Along with a vast array of indoor cultivation equipment, police seized 3,370 growing plants, 115 pounds of harvested marijuana and $65,000 cash from the four homes.
"These were not run-down houses," Jones said. "These were high-end homes in affluent neighborhoods. Several of them were worth in excess of $1 million and rented for $4,000 a month."
Jones said illicit growers usually don't operate out of their own homes because the houses are subject to forfeiture.
The growers took the liberty of modifying several of the homes, cutting 16-inch holes in the floors and ceilings to accommodate vents and ductwork, Jones said.
Six people, all of Vietnamese descent, have been charged with running marijuana cultivation facilities. They were also charged with theft of services for bypassing utility meters. Three remain at large and are believed to have fled the country, Jones said.
Nguyen, a Canadian citizen, remained at the Middlesex County Jail after failing to post $1 million bail.
Tuan A. Dang, 35, of Port Monmouth, and Ngoc H. Bui, 35, naturalized U.S. citizens who were both arrested Feb. 18 at the Millstone Township operation, were charged with maintaining a marijuana-growing facility and other counts. They both remain lodged on $1 million bail each at the Monmouth County Jail.
Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 215-854-2796 or email@example.com.