Six Plead Guilty in Hydroponic Marijuana Case
PITTSBURGH – Six residents of Western Pennsylvania and California pleaded guilty in federal court to a charge of conspiracy to violate the federal drug laws, United States Attorney David J. Hickton announced today.
Stanley Van Bach, 45, of Oakland, Calif.; Quynh Tran, 30, of San Jose, Calif.; Caquaine McGriff, 40, of Pittsburgh, Pa.; Toron Brooks-Chapman, 35, of Pittsburgh, Pa.; Tom Ich Chieu, 35, of Pittsburgh, Pa.; and Poi Tran, 30, of Oakland, Calif., pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute high-quality hydroponic marijuana before United States District Judge Nora Barry Fischer.
In connection with the guilty plea, the court was advised that co-conspirator Jennifer Chieu moved to Pennsylvania in 2010, and by October of that year was in the drug business, using her old contacts to ship her 10-20 pound packages of high-quality marijuana from California on a daily basis. Chieu then resold the marijuana for $2,400-$4,600 a pound, depending on quality, to a small network of dealers.
United States Postal Inspectors eventually identified more than 250 inbound drug packages, and in excess of 350 outbound parcels containing drug proceeds, with $12,000-$20,000 in each package. The total wholesale value of the marijuana was as much as $16 million, with the retail value being several multiples of that.
Postal inspectors and IRS, FBI, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agents observed Chieu making deals out of her Green Tree home and a nail salon she owned on Liberty Avenue in the Bloomfield section of Pittsburgh.
Between January and April 2011, postal inspectors served nine search warrants on outgoing parcels suspected to contain drug proceeds. Each of the parcels contained between $12,000-$20,000 in cash, with the total exceeding $143,000.
Wiretaps were approved for Chieu’s phones and several others between June and October 2011. Chieu and her co-conspirators spoke four languages on the wiretaps – Vietnamese, English, and two Chinese dialects - often switching languages in mid-sentence in an obvious attempt to hamper law enforcement agents and interpreters who might be listening.
Hundreds of hours of drug calls were intercepted between Chieu and her primary Oakland, Calif., drug supplier and other conspirators. On a daily basis, Chieu and her conspirators discussed how much marijuana would be sent, the quality or “brand name” of the product, and how much Chieu would charge for it here and how many packages of cash she planned to send to California the next day.
Tom Chieu, brother to Jennifer Chieu, assisted her in the conspiracy by driving her to drug deals, transporting multiple pounds of marijuana, and mailing cash drug proceeds to California, at Jennifer Chieu’s direction.
Poi Tran and Stanley Van Bach were secondary suppliers in California of marijuana sent to Jennifer Chieu.
Toron Brooks-Chapman and Caquaine McGriff, husband and wife, were local dealers of multiple pounds of marijuana they purchased from Jennifer Chieu.
Quynh Tran was the passenger in a van stopped on July 24, 2011, by the Pennsylvania State Police westbound on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near the Ohio line. More than $136,000 in cash drug proceeds was seized from the van.
About 3500 pounds of marijuana were distributed in the conspiracy. Large seizures of cash demonstrated the broad scope of this drug ring. In April 2012, Chieu and a conspirator were stopped in Utah for a traffic violation. Hidden within their car was more than one-half million dollars in cash. Both individuals refused to claim the cash, with Chieu telling officers she didn’t know how it got there.
Following the indictment of Chieu and 19 other individuals, Chieu was arrested in April 2012, at which time more than $70,000 was seized from her Green Tree home, and $100,000 from a safe deposit box. About a million dollars in cash was seized in this investigation, with homes and cars also seized for forfeiture to the government.
Fourteen of the 20 indicted individuals have now entered pleas of guilty and await sentencing. On Jan. 14, 2014, Jennifer Chieu entered a plea of guilty to drug and money laundering conspiracies.
Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the actual sentence imposed is based upon the seriousness of the offense and the criminal history, if any, of the defendant. The law provides for a total sentence of not less than five years to 40 years in prison and a fine of $5,000,000 or both, for Stanley Van Bach; up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $1,000,000 for Tom Ich Chieu; and up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for Quynh Tran, Caquaine McGriff, Toron Brooks-Chapman, and Poi Tran.
Sentencing has been scheduled for May 20, 2014, for Quynh Tran and Caquaine McGriff; May 21, 2014, for Tom Chieu; May 22, 2014, for Toron Brooks-Chapman; May 28, 2014, for Stanley Van Bach; and June 27, 2014, for Poi Tran.
Assistant United States Attorney Gregory J. Nescott is prosecuting this case on behalf of the government.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigation, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were the lead agencies in this case, and were assisted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Pennsylvania State Police in this investigation that led to the prosecution of these defendants.