7 Fatally Shot at Illegal California Marijuana Growing Site

7 Fatally Shot at Illegal California Marijuana Growing Site
Seven people were found fatally shot at an illegal marijuana growing operation in Aguanga, in Riverside County, Calif. on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. (Elliot Spagat/AP Photo)
The Associated Press

AGUANGA, Calif.—Seven people were found fatally shot at an illegal marijuana growing operation in rural Southern California, authorities said.

The crime scene was discovered before dawn Monday after deputies responded to a report of an assault with a deadly weapon at a home in the unincorporated community of Aguanga, north of San Diego, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement late Monday.

Deputies found a woman suffering from gunshot wounds who was then taken to a hospital and died, Monday’s statement said.

They then found six more dead people at the location that “was being used to manufacture and harvest an illicit marijuana operation,” the statement said.

More than 1,000 pounds (453.6 kilograms) of marijuana and several hundred marijuana plants were found.

A search did not immediately locate suspects, the statement said.

“This appears to have been an isolated incident, and there is no threat to the general public,” the statement said.

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 investigators believe residents living nearby should not be worried.

“The area is safe and we don’t have any other concerns,” she said.

The Aguanga shootings occurred in the Temecula Valley, whose vineyards and horse ranches have given it some traction as a weekend getaway for Southern California residents. About 15 miles (24.14 kilometers) west of Aguanga is a six-lane boulevard lined with strip malls in the city of Temecula, a bedroom community for San Diego and Los Angeles.

Aguanga itself is a one-stop sign, unincorporated town of 2,000 people—featuring 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.

In February, deputies seized more than 9,900 plants and collected 411 pounds of processed marijuana and firearms from suspected illegal marijuana sites in the Aguanga area. Four people were arrested.

California broadly legalized recreational marijuana sales in January 2018 but the illegal market has continued to thrive, in part because hefty legal marijuana taxes send consumers looking for better deals in the illicit economy.

Other factors that provide an opening for illegal sales and cultivation: Many local 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 operators 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.

By Elliot Spagat and Michael R. Blood