MONROE TOWNSHIP, N.J. (CBS/AP) It sounds like a dream sequence out of a Cheech and Chong movie. When a Monroe Township, N.J. police officer smelled something funny in the air, it led to a real-life record pot bust netting over $10 million dollars in growing plants and harvested bud.
On Feb. 17 police officer Thomas Lucasiewicz caught the smell of marijuana wafting from the chimney of a home last month in the Middlesex County community, about 40 miles north of Newark, Lucasiewicz told a press conference Wednesday.
When he knocked on the door of the home he found 44-year-old Thu N. Nguyen burning unusable parts of pot plants in the fireplace. Police went in and found 1,064 pot plants growing in the basement and master bedroom.
But that was only the beginning.
Over the span of three days, police unraveled an intricate web, and that bust led to search warrants for five more rented houses in four other towns - Millstone, Old Bridge, Manalapan and Manahawkin - that were being used to grow marijuana. One of the suspects lived in a sixth home where police seized $60,000 cash and vacuum bags used to package pot.
Police found holes drilled in floors to vent heat from the high-wattage lamps used for artificial sunlight, according to New Jersey's Star Ledger. One home had 74 lights of 1,000 watts each, authorities said. The suspects also bypassed electrical meters to conceal how much power the homes were concealing and steal electricity.
Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency in Washington, D.C., said outdoor farms still produce the bulk of marijuana grown in the United States, but that indoor cultivation has become more popular because they can grow year round, according to the Star Ledger.
In addition, plummeting real estate values in places like Florida and California have made it easier for criminals to obtain homes, Payne said.
"These criminal groups will buy or rent a house on a middle class, quiet street," he said. "They'll draw their blinds so no one knows what's going on inside."
All six suspects named are of Vietnamese descent. The three who were arrested - Nguyen, 44, a Canadian citizen; Tuan A. Dang, 35, of Port Monmouth; and Ngoc H. Bui, 35, of Old Bridge - were charged with maintaining a marijuana cultivation facility and drug possession with intent to distribute, crimes that each carry sentences of up to 20 years. They were also charged with theft of services for bypassing electrical meters at four homes to steal thousands of dollars worth of electricity and conceal the high amount of energy used to power growing lamps.
Police believe suspects Minh Bui and Quynh Bui fled to Thailand, and Nhung Thach is on the run.