Crime

Prosecutors charge men in marijuana bust at building partially owned by ex-congressman

Four men pleaded not guilty to criminal charges in connection with the discovery of an illegal marijuana grow in a Turlock warehouse building whose owners include former U.S. Rep. Jeff. Denham.

Gino Nardozzo, 54, of Turlock and Sang Nguyen, 34, Andy Tran, 36, and Xiaofeng Wang, 31, all of Sacramento, were arrested last week after Turlock police found the indoor garden with nearly 4,000 marijuana plants in the industrial building on D Street.

The four defendants were in court Monday afternoon for their arraignment hearing with their Sacramento-based attorneys from the Abrate & Olsen Law Group. A fifth suspect was arrested in the marijuana raid, but he was no longer in custody this week.

California Secretary of State records indicate Denham is a member of the limited liability company that owns the D Street building, where police served a search warrant Sept. 11. Turlock attorney Michael Warda, speaking on Denham’s behalf, has confirmed the former congressman’s ownership stake in the building.

Nardozzo faces a misdemeanor charge of possession of methamphetamine, according to a criminal complaint filed in court Friday by the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office.

Nardozzo’s bail had been set at $5,000. On Monday, Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Carrie Stephens ordered authorities to release Nardozzo on his own recognizance as he awaits trial.

Honey oil lab

Prosecutors charged Nguyen, Tran and Wang with a felony charge of manufacturing a controlled substance, “honey oil.” The oil — a form of purified marijuana — is extracted from the plants in butane hash oil laboratories. Authorities say the finished product is used in vape pens and marijuana edibles.

Daniel Olsen, the defense attorney representing Nguyen and Tran, told the judge that the marijuana found in Turlock was set to be approved by authorities two weeks after the raid occurred. Olsen and his law firm partner, Michael Abrate, declined to comment after Monday’s hearing.

On the same day police seized the illegal marijuana grow in Turlock, Denham participated in a panel discussion in Santa Barbara County about the potential of wine and cannabis tourism, according to local media accounts there.

While marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, California voters approved recreational use in 2016. But businesses that grow and sell cannabis and engage in other aspects of the industry need approval from the state and their local government to operate legally.

The building police searched last week is next to Denham Plastics, and Warda said the two buildings are about 75 feet apart and share a common gate and easement to use the gate. But he said Denham Plastics workers had no indication of any alleged illegal activity. Warda added that the raided building is huge, roughly 50,000 square feet, making concealment easy.

Warda said the 680 D Street LLC was in the process of selling the building to a company that had applied in Turlock for a city permit to grow marijuana. The sale was contingent upon the city approving the permit.

Denham building.jpg
Pictured is the building at 680 D St. in Turlock where an indoor grow of nearly 4,000 marijuana plants and other drugs were found. Patty Guerra pguerra@modbee.com

On Monday, Olsen told the judge that Nguyen and Tran had no significant criminal history. Nguyen’s bail had been set at $285,000; Tran’s bail was $250,000. Olsen asked the court to reduce their bail to $50,000 each.

Olsen told the judge that bail amount was set in accordance with other cases involving meth labs. He argued there was some butane and some finished product found in the building, but honey oil labs are much less explosive than meth labs.

The defense attorney also argued that Nguyen had been hired to build rooms in the industrial building, and he had only been working there for a few weeks before his arrest. Olsen said Nguyen’s role was only in construction, not assisting in growing marijuana.

Stephens told the attorney that honey oil labs are still dangerous and explode all the time. The judge set Tran’s bail at $100,000.

Glock handgun

Nguyen, Tran and Wang also face a misdemeanor charge of cultivating marijuana. Nguyen also is accused of possessing cocaine while in the immediate possession of a loaded Glock 9 mm handgun, according to the criminal complaint.

Olsen argued that Nguyen was questioned by investigators, who asked his client where the handgun was. Olsen told the judge that Nguyen showed the investigators the handgun was in a backpack; he didn’t have the gun on him. The judge reduced Nguyen’s bail to $135,000.

Wang’s bail had been set at $250,000. Abrate, the defense attorney who represents Nardozzo and Wang, told the judge that Wang is a married man and owner of a sushi buffet restaurant in Stockton.

The judge also reduced Wang’s bail to $100,000. Stephens said she wouldn’t have reduced their bail if the defendants had criminal histories. She scheduled the four defendants to return to court Oct. 3 for a pretrial hearing.

Suspect released from jail

Sacramento-based Kings Happy Farm entered into a lease agreement with the limited liability company to purchase the 680 D Street building, with the expectation that the lease would become effective in November 2017, according to a copy of the lease agreement provided by Turlock city officials.

A proposal from Kings Happy Farm was submitted to the city for its cannabis growing business. It’s not clear how long the company had been occupying the D Street building. Abrate is listed as the Kings Happy Farm project’s legal counsel.

Chris Pham, 43, also was arrested in connection with last week’s marijuana raid, but he was no longer in custody Monday. Pham was released from the Stanislaus County Jail after sheriff’s officials were notified that prosecutors would not be filing formal criminal charges against Pham.

A Chris Pham is listed as the Kings Happy Farm manager on the paperwork the company submitted to Turlock. The Bee on Monday called a phone number for Pham listed in the project proposal. A man answered, saying it was the wrong number. Attempts to reach Pham by email were not successful.

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Rosalio Ahumada writes news stories about criminal court cases in Stanislaus County for The Modesto Bee, issues related to immigration and immigrant communities and breaking news related to crime and public safety. From time to time, he covers the Modesto City Council meetings. He has worked as a news reporter in the Northern San Joaquin Valley since 2004.
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