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Killing of 7 investigated at California marijuana grow site

By The Associated Press
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AGUANGA, Calif. (AP) — Detectives on Tuesday investigated what prompted the Labor Day killings of seven people at an illegal marijuana growing operation in a small, rural Southern California community known for its horse ranches and nurseries along dirt roads.

The fatal shootings in Aguanga, north of San Diego, represent the latest flashpoint in the violence that often permeates California's illegal marijuana market.

The state broadly legalized recreational marijuana sales in January 2018 but the illicit market is thriving — in part because hefty legal marijuana taxes send consumers looking for better deals in the illegal economy.

Before dawn Monday, Riverside County sheriff's deputies responded to a report of an assault with a deadly weapon at an Aguanga home. They found a woman suffering from gunshot wounds who later died at a hospital, according to a sheriff's department statement.

The deputies also discovered six more dead people at the location that "was being used to manufacture and harvest an illicit marijuana operation,” the statement said.

Investigators seized more than 1,000 pounds (453.6 kilograms) of marijuana and several hundred marijuana plants there.

While officials said their search did not immediately locate any suspects, the sheriff's statement called the deaths “an isolated incident” that did not threaten people in Aguanga, population about 2,000.

The sheriff's department declined Tuesday morning to disclose additional details about the case but officials planned to hold a news conference in the afternoon.

Riverside Sgt. Deanna Pecoraro said "the area is safe and we don’t have any other concerns,”

Aguanga is in the Temecula Valley, dotted with vineyards and horse ranches that have given it some traction as a weekend getaway for Southern California residents. It's near the small city of Temecula, a bedroom community for San Diego and Los Angeles.

Aguanga itself is a one-stop sign place with a post office, a general store and a real estate brokerage. Its few commercial establishments give way to horse ranches and nurseries along dirt roads, many behind gates and “no trespassing” signs.

Sheriff's deputies in February seized more than 9,900 plants and collected 411 pounds (186 kilograms) of processed marijuana and firearms from suspected illegal marijuana sites in the Aguanga area. Four people were arrested.

The law enforcement seizures of the area's illegal growing operations have spawned nicknames for the raids like “Marijuana Mondays,” “Weed Wednesdays” and “THC Thursdays,” according to Mike Reed, a real estate broker and 28-year Agangua resident.

Reed said he does business with pot growers who operate legally and illegally — some of whom live in his gated community.

Residents move to Agangua for “peace and solitude” plus good camping, Reed said.

“People live here because it’s not in the city,” Reed said.

But Aguanga's isolation, however, may have helped make it an environment prone to illegal marijuana sales and cultivation.

Adam Spiker, executive director of the Southern California Coalition, a cannabis industry group, said the shootings were a reminder that the sprawling illegal marketplace remains largely unchecked, with spotty enforcement.

“Shame on all of us: It seems we have one foot in and one foot out on regulating this industry,” Spiker said.

Many California communities have not established legal marijuana markets, or have banned commercial marijuana activity. Law enforcement has been unable to keep up with the illicit growing operations.

“This risk is inherent in the underground market,” said Los Angeles marijuana dispensary owner Jerred Kiloh, who heads United Cannabis Business Association, an industry group. “When you have money and high returns, people want to take that from you.”

Kiloh said most illicit market crimes go unreported because illegal marijuana farmers who have been robbed cannot turn to authorities.

Large cannabis growing operations typically have hundreds of thousands of dollars of product at each site, making them attractive targets for criminals.

"That’s why the violence becomes worse and worse,” Kiloh said.

___

Blood reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press Writer Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles contributed.

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