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15,000 Pounds of Fireworks, $1 Million in Cash Seized in San Mateo County Bust

REDWOOD CITY (CBS SF) -- San Mateo County Sheriff's investigators have broken up a major illegal fireworks distribution ring, serving a number of search warrants this week and seizing some 15,000 pounds of fireworks.

The sheriff's office identified two suspects in the case, 61-year-old San Francisco resident Sam San and 54-year-old Jennifer Nguyen of San Jose. San was booked into San Mateo County Jail on charges of selling and possessing dangerous fireworks. Charges were still being filed against Nguyen, the sheriff's office said.

Sam San
Sam San (San Mateo County Sheriff's Office)

The investigation was conducted over the past two months by the sheriff's crime suppression unit, which linked San and Nguyen to sales of fireworks in San Mateo County. Detectives identified two homes and a warehouse in Oakland associated with the operation the sheriff's office said.

On Wednesday and Thursday, detectives executed a number of search warrants in the counties of San Mateo, San Francisco, Alameda and Santa Clara. Aside from the 15,000 pounds of illegal fireworks, detectives seized approximately $1,000,000 in cash.

"As far as this amount of product, and this amount of cash, I think it's the biggest one in quite some time," said San Mateo County Sheriff's Lt. Eamonn Allen.

The undercover officers weren't just able to buy; they were buying in bulk. They made several purchases, each of them between 500 and 1,000 pounds, for thousands of dollars at a time. While all the purchases were made in San Mateo County, the case branches out across the Bay Area. The suspect, Sam San, lives in San Francisco.

"His warehouse was in Oakland," Allen said. "And then they were ultimately able to find an additional residence in San Jose where additional fireworks were stored as well."

The scale of the bust, more than 7 tons, speaks to the scale of the illegal displays we have seen across the region for about a year now. Investigators say the merchandise came from China, and think there's more behind it that is just stuck in traffic.

"We believe that there may be more on the way, but some of the shipping delays that we have seen recently actually prevented even more tonnage of illegal fireworks from being seized," explained Allen.

The exact volume of how much in the way of fireworks might be sitting on a container ship somewhere is unknown. The bust netted San Mateo County authorities such a large quantity of fireworks that the sheriff's office is not quite sure what to do with it.

They're looking for a safe storage space like a munitions bunker somewhere in California, possibly as far away as Victorville.

As far as the safe disposal of the fireworks, KPIX was told that California environmental rules make it difficult to just incinerate this volume of fireworks. It may have to be taken to another state in the union with less stringent regulations to be destroyed.

The sheriff's office reminded residents that all fireworks are illegal in unincorporated areas within San Mateo County as well as Sheriff's Office contract cities and towns and fines can be issued up to $1,000.

Wilson Walker contributed to this report.

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