ROCK HILL Rubell Alexander has lived in Carnegie Estates a middle class Rock Hill subdivision just off Saluda Road ever since theres been a Carnegie Estates.
Along with manicured lawns and teens playing basketball, she has witnessed several cycles of crime trickle into the neighborhood from rampant break-ins to the hoodlums she said once brought their conflicts into the area.
But none of that rattled her like finding out that two convicted drug dealers spent six months in a two-story, four-bedroom home around the corner from her house growing indoors what officials say was a high-grade type of marijuana.
It never looked like no drug house, Alexander said. Being discreet not associating (with neighbors) I guess thats how it was going on for a long time.
That house at 630 Favorwood Drive and surrounded by homes with market values reaching $130,000 captured the attention of federal and local drug enforcement agents tracking two men.
Police say they were growing 128 marijuana plants valued at more than $250,000 inside the rental home just a half-mile from South Pointe High School and Saluda Trail Middle School.
York County drug enforcement agents arrested two men who they say had converted three rooms into growing space for the marijuana plants and another room to dry them out using a sophisticated filtration system to get rid of the odor.
Once the drug was processed and packaged at the Rock Hill home agents say it was shipped to Charlotte to be sold on the street.
Calvin Hoang, 27, and Phuong The Truong, 29 convicted drug dealers who had served time in a federal prison were arrested last month and charged with manufacturing and trafficking marijuana.
The house was vacant downstairs, but upstairs the walls were lined with reflection paper and heavy-duty grow lights and wires hanging from the ceiling, said Marvin Brown, commander of the York County Multijurisdictional Drug Enforcement Unit.
The base of operation came as no surprise to county drug agents, who say their method as well as their decision to use a suburban home as a drug harvesting headquarters fits into a nationwide trend.
Under the radar
Not all marijuana distributors toil in rural fields covered with green marijuana plants. Some have moved into suburbia, said Brown, who fears aggressive policing of marijuana fields has driven them there.
Historically, indoor grow is a pretty steady phenomena, said Chuvalo Truesdell, special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administrations Atlanta field division, which oversees South Carolina and three other states.
Its also a trend among certain demographics, Truesdell said, including Cuban, Vietnamese, Laotian and Caucasian growers.
Suburban neighborhoods make it easy for drug dealers and suppliers to cover and engage in their activities unnoticed, he said.
Theyll move into middle class neighborhoods, move under the radar and go unnoticed, Truesdell said. Its quite an innocuous position they want to be in, considering the high-grade product theyre growing.
Indoor marijuana, mostly a type of unfertilized female plant, has a higher concentration of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol the primary ingredient in cannabis that affects the brain. Its capable of affecting appetite, reducing aggression and producing other intoxicating effects.
Higher THC concentrations help make marijuana already, according to Truesdell, the most abused, illicit substance in America more profitable.
That shot at more money has resulted in drug enforcement agents busting up more such operations across the country:
• In early June, federal agents in New York arrested 13 men and women in connection with a network of marijuana grow houses throughout Miami, Fla., accusing them of harvesting at least 1,146 plants in various houses since 2004.
• On June 29, police removed more than 700 marijuana plants from a Mooresville, N.C., home and arrested four men in what they called the police departments biggest drug bust ever.
• On July 13, police arrested a man and woman in Marina, Calif., after finding 100 marijuana plants and an extensive drying operation in the garage of their home in a residential neighborhood.
Not common street thugs
People who grow indoor marijuana are making a high grade product, Truesdell said, and can sell a pound for $5,000 at the least.
The people who grow the substance arent street thugs, he said. Theyre experts. Its no novice who does this.
Drug trafficking organizations employ transportation experts capable of smuggling drugs across long distances, he said. They also have power grid experts capable of setting up complicated grow systems.
They find their niche and their levels of expertise, Truesdell said.
Identifying growers can be easy. Suburban homes outfitted with lattice covers around heating and cooling units, or a lot of soil bags in the yard needed for constant re-plotting, are common indicators, he said.
Getting that information isnt easy.
Neighbors often are unwilling to speak to police for fear of retaliation or becoming too involved, said Walter Beck, master deputy with the Fort Mill office of the York County drug unit.
But neighbors who give authorities a tip might spur an investigation that could result in a major arrest, he said.
Telltale signs that something might not be right in the neighborhood, Beck said, include houses with tenants who are not home for extended periods, who leave their windows covered all the time and who never turn the lights on.
A history of drugs
Several months ago, agents with Charlottes FBI Task Force asked York County drug agents for help after suspecting that Phuong The Truong began dealing drugs again when he was sighted frequently at the Rock Hill home, Brown said.
On July 6, officials arrested Truong, whose criminal history includes convictions for minor offenses such as speeding to convictions in federal court.
In February 2005, a state grand jury named Truong in a 14-person indictment filed in federal court in Georgia, where he was accused of conspiring with several others to transfer drug money to Vietnam.
According to the indictment, Truong and the others were ordered to relinquish thousands of dollars in U.S. currency along with the many cars, computers and weapons they purchased with drug money.
Federal court documents show that in May 2006 Truong pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering cash they obtained by selling ecstasy and marijuana throughout 2003 and 2004.
He was sentenced in 2010 to 32 months in federal prison, followed by three months of probation.
In 2004, Truong was named in a federal indictment in North Carolina, charged with two counts of conspiracy to distribute ecstasy and marijuana, three counts of money laundering and one count of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances.
Three years later, all the charges against him were dismissed. Attempts to reach Truongs defense attorney for the case were unsuccessful. The prosecutor who handled the case against Truong, currently working in Turkey, was unreachable as well.
Truong remains in custody at the Mecklenburg County Jail, where hes listed as a federal inmate charged with violating probation.
After Troung refused to talk about the Favorwood Drive home or any possible associates, drug agents watched the area for several days.
Eventually, officers spotted Hoang entering the house, Brown said, and once they obtained a search warrant, found the grow house in operation.
Police arrested and charged Hoang on July 10 with two counts of manufacturing and trafficking marijuana. He was held on a $35,000 bond before being released on July 11.
South Carolina and North Carolina law enforcement records show that Hoang had no prior state convictions.
But in 2006, he pleaded guilty in federal court in North Carolina to possessing ecstasy with the intent to distribute, according to the same 2004 indictment that accused Truong of several drug and conspiracy violations.
He was sentenced to three years probation and 50 hours of community service.
A growing trend
Officials believe the marijuana growing operation started at the Favorwood Drive home in February. The house was used for manufacturing only, Brown said, and the drugs were sold primarily in Charlotte.
The State Law Enforcement Division valued the plants at $2,000 a piece, Brown said. Once tests are completed in a state lab, the confiscated plants will be incinerated.
It was York Countys largest grow house bust so far this year, Brown said.
Last year, drug enforcement officials busted 17 grow houses in York County. So far this year, theyve found five.
One house in Lesslie a few years ago was filled with 998 marijuana plants, Brown said the most ever found in a single York County home.
The Favorwood Drive house had been deeded to a family after a relative died in 2011, according to the York County Register of Deeds office. Several neighbors told police the family moved out of the house almost six months ago around the same time officials say Hoang and Truong began harvesting their grow.
The neighbors didnt have a clue, Brown said.
That was the consensus among residents of Carnegie Estates and the surrounding streets a day after Hoangs arrest.
Amanda Weakland, a mother of two who lives just around the corner from the drug house on Round Hill Court, said she had no clue about the illicit activities going on.
She didnt know the people who lived in the house well, she said, although she occasionally spoke to them in passing.
They seemed like nice, normal people, she said. Im just totally shocked that it was happening here.
Carnegie Estates is a safe place to live for the most part, Weakland said, with the exception of a few break-ins and vandalisms in the back.
Closer to the back on Eagle Bluff Road a one-way street that intersects with Favorwood Drive Tawanna Hope, a mother of three, agreed that there have been a lot of break-ins.
Someone tried to break into a neighbors home just three houses from hers while the homeowner was still inside, she said.
Hope said the drug activities probably brought a lot of people into the neighborhood who otherwise never would have reason to stop by.
Farther down Favorwood Drive, Kentrell Hines, who has lived in Carnegie Estates for three months, said he didnt notice anything strange about the people who lived in the house.
There was nothing out of the way about them, he said. They just did their own thing.
After listening to the details of the arrests, Hines was surprised to find out what was going on just across the street.
Then it clicked, he said he had seen police cars patrolling the area for several days before Hoang was arrested.
The neighborhood, Hines said, is safe and calm.
You would never think that would be going on, he said.