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York pot-growing enterprise dissected in 'complex' probe
When fire revealed a massive marijuana-growing operation inside a Newberry Township house in January, township police Lt. Steve Lutz undertook a monthslong investigation that led him down a lengthy paper trail, taking him to local nail salons and eventually to a house in Cumberland County where he discovered another pot-growing operation, according to officials and court documents.
"It was very time-consuming and document-oriented," Lutz said. "I followed the money."
Chief deputy prosecutor David Sunday praised the work of Lutz and of the York County Drug Task Force, which worked jointly with the lieutenant. Lutz said he could not have undertaken the assignment without the task force's help.
"This was a great investigation," Sunday said. "The Newberry Township Police Department and the York County Drug Task Force worked very diligently to get through a very lengthy paper trail. To solve this was very complex."
The investigation began Jan. 25 when a fire at 40 Popps Ford Road revealed the grow operation.
"No one was living there ... and the house wasn't near other homes," Sunday said. "After the fire was put out, police obtained a search warrant. They found more than a thousand marijuana plants and growing equipment throughout the house."
An additional 50 pounds of packaged marijuana also was found, according to court documents, which state "significant modifications" were made to the vacant house to convert it to a pot-growing setup.
Vented, irrigated: Someone had cut a hole through concrete in the basement to access outside electrical lines, thereby bypassing the home's electric meter, documents state, and ventilation and irrigation systems had been added.
The first step in the probe was to determine who owned the home, Sunday said.
A paper trail of utility bills, mail, bank receipts, prescription medication bottles and other documents led Lutz and drug task force investigators to a number of people, including some living in Canada, according to court documents. Others whose names were uncovered during the investigation are local and are affiliated with nail salons in York and Dauphin counties, documents reveal.
"(The nail salons') involvement, if any, is still under investigation," Sunday said.
The trail also led Lutz and drug detectives to a second home — this one on Golfview Road, near Mechanicsburg in Hampden Township, Cumberland County, documents state.
Lutz learned that house was owned by a woman whose name was revealed when the lieutenant obtained bank records, which he requested by search warrant after finding a bank receipt in the Newberry Township grow house, he said.
"We drove by the house and determined it had the same type of coverings on the windows as the Popps Ford Road house. They basically blacked out the windows," Lutz said. "We smelled the marijuana (from outside) and notified Hampden Township Police."
Other houses: The trail also led investigators to other York County houses that likely had previously been used as grow sites, and those buildings were searched, documents state.
"But there weren't full grow operations like the one in Newberry Township," Sunday said.
It wasn't the first time the drug task force had investigated some of the people believed to be involved in the large-scale growing operation here and in Cumberland County. Court records show the drug task force looked into some of the same people in 2010.
"This case was investigated previously and came to a dead end," Sunday said, adding the Popps Ford Road fire "reignited the flames of this investigation."
While chasing down records, police also kept an eye on the Popps Ford Road home and kept watch for two Honda Odysseys identified through the probe.
Two arrests: When they pulled over one of the Odysseys on April 26, they arrested the two men inside, documents state. The vehicle's interior smelled strongly of marijuana, and a search of it yielded items including rubber gloves and dryer sheets, which are used to mask the smell of pot, police said.
Lutz on Oct. 3 filed charges against the men — Khang Bach, 41, of Oakdale, Allegheny County, and Xuan Le, 57, of Mississauga, Ontario, including manufacturing drugs, criminal conspiracy and theft of services, for allegedly stealing electricity.
On Thursday, Bach turned himself in at the office of District Judge Scott Gross for arraignment, Lutz said. Gross set Bach's bail at $200,000 unsecured, after which Bach was turned over to Hampden Township Police.
Bach was arraigned in Cumberland County for his alleged involvement in the Mechanicsburg-area grow operation; his bail there was set at $25,000 unsecured, court records state. Bach's charges there including manufacturing drugs and criminal conspiracy.
Still active: Sunday said the investigation into the drug enterprise is still active, "but we've maxed out our ability in this case."
He declined comment on whether federal drug investigators have taken over.
The York Dispatch is withholding names of people identified in search warrant documents because they have so far not been charged.
Asked what happened to the nearly 1,500 marijuana plants and 50 pounds of packaged pot seized from the torched Newberry Township home, Sunday said some was sent for testing, but most was destroyed by being incinerated.
Anyone with information about the pot-growing enterprise can call Newberry Township Police at (717) 938-2608.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at email@example.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.