Riverside County sheriff calls in federal partners to investigate Aguanga shooting

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco holds a news conference about an investigation where seven people suffered fatal gunshot wounds at a residence in Aguanga, Monday, Sept. 7. Anza Valley Outlook/Diane Sieker photo

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco called in federal authorities to assist in the investigation of a shooting that left seven people dead in Aguanga in the early morning hours Monday, Sept. 7.

Seven people died after suffering from gunshot wounds at a suspected illegal marijuana grow operation, officials from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said.

In a news conference Tuesday, Sept. 8, in Riverside, Bianco said more than 20 people lived at the property, which had multiple residences and makeshift buildings, marijuana cultivation, harvesting and processing areas and several vehicles with out-of-state registrations.

Deputies also discovered a butane honey oil lab on the grounds.

According to the Department of Justice, butane honey or hash oil labs are highly dangerous facilities used to extract THC from marijuana, using butane – a highly flammable gas, posing a fire and explosion risk to nearby residences.

“During the investigation of this incident, it was determined that this residence was an obvious large-scale illegal marijuana cultivation and processing center,” Bianco said. “We believe at this time that there were multiple suspects.”

Investigators seized more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana and several hundred live marijuana plants. Street value was estimated at between $1to $5 million, he said.

“We have asked for help from our federal partners,” Bianco said. “We are actively working with them for any leads we may come up with and evidence processing they can help us with.

“It was a large-scale operation, obviously illegal, like almost every grow in our mountain communities. This was not a small operation – this was a very organized crime type of an operation,” he said.

They believe it could have been a rental property, the sheriff said.

“So far in 2020, this is our eighth call of a homicide with 14 victims, dealing strictly with marijuana,” Bianco said. “Marijuana is not a victimless crime. We at the sheriff’s department are enforcing these illegal marijuana grows with our search warrants and confiscating illegal marijuana and taking these properties if we can.”

Bianco promised increased enforcement activities.

The victims in the shooting were located around or in one of the dwellings located on the large property.

All seven victims and witnesses were Laotian, Bianco said.

Laotian involvement in illegal marijuana harvesting has grown over the last decade in California, he said.

“This is not going to be an easy investigation. It will span multiple states, which is why we have reached out and included our federal partners to assist us,” Bianco said.

Deputies responded to a 911 call of an assault with a deadly weapon at a residence in the 45000 block of Highway 371 early Monday morning, where they discovered seven shooting victims. Six died at the scene as a result of their injuries, and one woman succumbed to her wounds at a nearby hospital.

Deputies searched the surrounding area, but the suspect or suspects remain outstanding.

Investigators from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Central Homicide Unit and Hemet Station responded and assumed the investigation.

Sheriff’s department officials said the shooting appeared to be an isolated incident, and there is no threat to the general public.

“Evidence located at the scene indicated the location was being used to manufacture and harvest an illicit marijuana operation,” Riverside County Sheriff’s Sgt. Richard Carroll said.

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

The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department urged anyone with information regarding the incident to contact Central Homicide Investigator Paz at 951-955-2777.

The shooting remains under investigation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Diane Sieker can be reached by email at dsieker@reedermedia.com.