With the battle for B.C. bud now routinely turning violent in Richmond
neighbourhoods, sawed-off shotguns have replaced shoddy wiring as the
primary public safety concern of local police tasked to clean up the city's
growing marijuana problem.

As locals sleep peacefully in their beds at night, as many as 20 groups of
balaclava-bearing bandits, some clad in bullet-proof vests and brandishing
loaded shotguns and machetes, routinely case houses in Steveston, South Arm
and even Terra Nova, looking and sniffing for the green they hope will
eventually line their wallets.

In the fight for the lucrative marijuana crop, beatings and murder are more
than ever part of the mix, a marked departure from only a couple of years
ago, when the predominant fear was that a fire caused by amateurish
electrical wiring could claim a life.

It's no longer the threat of a fire, but rather innocent people being fired
upon that has the head of Richmond RCMP's marijuana production unit worried
for the public's safety.

RCMP Cpl. Sanjaya Wijayakoon, head of Richmond's dedicated five-member
marijuana squad, says the number of people breaking into grow ops, the type
of weapons they carry, and the level of violence some of these people are
willing to go to, would shock the public.

He says marijuana growing operation rip offs, or grow rips, happen at least
once per week in Richmond, which is home to at least 100 grow ops police
have confirmed, and perhaps as many as 500 others based on tips from the
public.

Police intelligence indicates some better-organized groups are discussing on
a nightly basis which Richmond addresses to hit. The hired hands or
gardeners--paid between $3,000 and $5,000 per month to water and clip the
plants-- are arming themselves with handguns, shotguns, machetes and
home-made spears, with the intent of protecting the crops which can fetch
upwards of $150,000 per year.

GROW RIPS

For them, condensation in a house's windows and the smell of marijuana
seeping through an air vent is as good as a welcome mat, pointing the way to
an easy pay-day worth thousands of dollars with virtually no risk of jail.

For local police, it's part of a troubling trend they believe could
eventually have deadly consequences for completely innocent bystanders.
Commonly staking out Richmond's neighbourhoods in packs of four or five much
as the police do, these thieves carefully survey houses for the tell-tale
signs (the signature drone of blowers and fans heard through a window,
curtains drawn all day) that a crop of marijuana is hidden inside.

Then in the middle of the night, with one working as a lookout and another
behind the wheel of the getaway vehicle, at least two others armed with tire
irons, bear spray, even handguns and sawed-off shotguns, bust in, looking to
walk away with garbage bags full of green. Although most aren't looking for
violence, some of these bandits come prepared for the worst, wearing Kevlar
vests and carrying cocked weapons in case they meet with resistance.

It's all part of a high-stakes and violent drama being played out in
Richmond on a nearly nightly basis as rival gangs battle high school
teenagers and other criminals over the lucrative marijuana crop.

Just last June, in a horrifying example of the type of danger the police and
general public routinely face, a house at 10000 No. 2 Road--well known for
being a grow-op--was struck again, this time by bandits who were armed to
the teeth.

Four men in their early 20s, armed with two sawed-off shotguns, bullet-proof
vests and knives, were spotted by an alert neighbour as they were jumping
over fences and then breaking into the distinctive white house at the corner
of No. 2 Road and Williams.

Police rushed to the scene and arrested the four men inside the home,
fortunately without incident.

"If they knew what was really happening out there, everybody in Richmond
would be stunned," Wijayakoon told The Richmond Review this week from his
office, where a map peppered with 100 red and black pins displays Richmond
grow ops police either are certain exist (about 75) or have shut down (about
25). Police suspect there are as many as 500 grow ops currently running in
Richmond.

Not trying to be an alarmist, Wijayakoon said he simply wants the public to
know what the police are up against, and what dangers the public are facing.
These grow rippers run the gamut, from high school students trying to make a
fast buck and armed only with bear spray and knives, to more seasoned
criminals who pack serious firearms and are prepared for a deadly
confrontation.

It's only a matter of time before these bandits make a mistake, target the
wrong house and hurt an innocent family, Wijayakoon said. Investigators
already suspect some cases of mistaken identity in home invasions that have
ended in assault and torture in Richmond over the past couple of years. But
so far, nobody innocent has been killed.

"I really believe it's a matter of time. That's what freaks me out."

Wijayakoon sees this not as a battle with marijuana users, but rather as a
fight to keep Richmond free of the violence that growers and rippers are
capable of.

The grow ops of today are sometimes secreted inside expensive homes using
top-notch electrical workmanship and material. One prominent downtown
Richmond penthouse was capable of growing up to 2,000 marijuana plants and
had been in operation for about two years before police shut it down.

Since he took over the unit in September, Wijayakoon said his squad has been
averaging two grow-op kick-ins per week. If it weren't for the
administrative paperwork and court follow-up, they could be doing many more
busts as Richmond has no shortage of grow ops, he said.

During his team's undercover surveillance, they have stumbled across the bad
guys doing much the same leg work. Wijayakoon says these bandits are
generally between 15 and 35 years of age, come from all parts of the Lower
Mainland, and they are lured by the money.

Break into a grow op and you can come away with $10,000 to $15,000 worth of
marijuana. Not a bad night's work shared between four or five people,
provided they can chop and dry the crop and find a buyer.

More troubling than the increased frequency of the grow rips over the past
two years--coinciding closely with the proliferation of these clandestine
greenhouses--is the increase in violence.

And with children now routinely found living with their parents inside these
grow ops, and some grow ops located directly across the street from
elementary schools, the possibilities are terrifying, Wijayakoon said.

BULLET PROOF

When something goes wrong with a grow rip, it can go very wrong.

On Sept. 8, a 41-year-old Vancouver man who was apparently hired to tend a
marijuana crop in a house on No. 4 Road, paid dearly for his labours.

Four young males, between 16 and 19 years of age and armed with a
nine-millimetre handgun allegedly broke into the house late one Sunday night
with the intent of stealing the modest marijuana crop being grown inside.

There was some sort of altercation and the Vancouver man was severely
beaten, dying a few hours after police found him lying on the street in
front of the house. Two teenagers have been charged with second-degree
murder; another, a 17-year-old from Richmond, is charged with manslaughter.

A combination of factors are making grow-rips attractive to both hardened
criminals and their fledgling associates.

Even if they are caught by police red-handed, in the midst of a break-in,
grow rippers are likely to get off scot-free.

Why? The victims of these break-ins rarely press charges because they would
first have to admit to knowing about or growing the marijuana, a criminal
offense. So without a complainant, that leaves police with little to work on
and the likelihood of a drug-related conviction even fainter.

These bandits are well aware of that going in and even consider the
inconvenience and arrest the cost of doing business.

RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Grant Learned said what's happening in Richmond is
repeated in any area with an abundance of B.C. bud. The chances of making a
big score with a grow rip are better than robbing a bank, and the bad guys
know that too, Learned said.

Banks have video surveillance and security features that make it difficult
to get away with any substantial amount of cash. At the same time, landing a
conviction is easier with a bank heist, making that all the more risky.

Grow ops, on the other hand, are often much softer targets, commonly guarded
by people who are unlikely to press charges.

It was in October of 2000 when three young men, all aged 19 or 20, broke
into the same older white house hit last June on No. 2 Road with the
specific intent of snatching the house's marijuana stash, thinking the house
was empty. A Vietnamese woman in her late 40s was inside, however, and she
was severely beaten and sexually assaulted by one of the men, who was later
convicted.

While Richmond has been spared of innocent bystanders being victimized,
Learned said that isn't the case in other Lower Mainland communities.

"We're past that point. Innocent people have been victimized and have been
killed. It's only a matter of time before one of these grow ops turns into a
public battle between those inside and those trying to get inside."

Those hired to keep an eye on these grow-ops seemingly know full-well about
the risks.

Learned said many of these gardeners express relief after they learn it is
the police breaking into their front doors to raid the place, not the
bandits who go as far as beatings, torture and even rape.

So what can the public do to avoid becoming victim?

Police say stronger relationships in neighbourhoods would give police an
extra set of eyes and ears to help weed out marijuana growers. Neighbours
that know one another well also know what looks out-of-place, such as an
unfamiliar vehicle, or a group of unfamiliar teens roaming the area.

Richmondites need to know that if they see something suspicious, anything at
all, they should pick up the phone and call the police. It could be a call
that will save the life of someone innocent.


Pubdate: Sat, 04 Jan 2003
Source: Richmond Review, The (CN BC)
Copyright: 2003 Richmond Public Library
Contact: news@richmondreview.com
Website: http://www.richmondreview.com/