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 horse ranches and plant 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 discovered six more dead people at the house that "was being used to manufacture and harvest an illicit marijuana operation,” the statement said.
Investigators seized more than 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms) of marijuana and several hundred marijuana plants.
While officials said they did not immediately find any suspects, the sheriff's statement called the deaths “an isolated incident” that did not threaten people in Aguanga, population about 2,000.
“The area is safe and we don’t have any other concerns,” sheriff’s Sgt. Deanna Pecoraro said.
Partially eaten pizza sat in boxes in a circular dirt driveway of the dilapidated two-bedroom house where the shootings occurred. Three cars were parked outside — one with its front doors open.
Cases of bottled water were stacked on the front porch, which was strewn with clothing and plastic bags. A black tarp was stretched atop poles in the fenced backyard, indicating a small growing operation. Unlike many neighboring homes, it had neither a gate nor a “no trespassing” sign at the entrance.
The sheriff's department declined to give additional details, but officials planned an afternoon news conference.
Reached by phone, property owner Ronald McKay expressed surprise, saying he didn't know a shooting had taken place at either of the rentals, a mobile home and the house.
He said he had tried to visit Monday to check on the well during the recent heat wave but was turned away by a deputy who wouldn’t tell him what was going on. He said he left his phone number, but authorities never called.
McKay said he didn’t know the tenants or their names — the rentals are handled by someone who works with him. But he said the home had been rented for three years and the mobile home for two without incident.
“I’m kind of unaware of anything right now,” McKay said. “For two and three years, they’ve been there — perfect. Never had an issue.”
Aguanga, with its post office, general store and real estate brokerage, 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 Temecula, a bedroom community for San Diego and Los Angeles.
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.
Raids at illegal growing operations in the area have spawned nicknames like “Marijuana Mondays,” “Weed Wednesdays” and “THC Thursdays,” according to Mike Reed, a real estate broker and 28-year Aguanga resident.
Reed said he does business with pot growers operating legally and illegally — some of whom live in his gated community.
Residents move to Aguanga for “peace and solitude,” plus good camping, Reed said. “People live here because it’s not in the city.”
Aguanga's isolation, however, may have made it 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.
“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 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.
This story has been corrected to show that Aguanga was misspelled in two instances.