When 2015 headlines broke that 32 people were arrested for their involvement in a marijuana growing and smuggling operation that stretched from Colorado to Minnesota, initial interest in Operation #GoldenGofer peaked and then quickly died down.
However, for former Westword writer Chris Walker, the story was far from over.
“When this news broke, there was a lot of low-hanging fruit. There were skydivers involved, SWAT raids, and some of these guys, who were longtime friends who had come out here specifically to take advantage of marijuana laws, had become informants,” Walker told Westword. “It all turned sour, with the friends turning against each other, so there seemed to be a lot of drama there.”
In fact, Walker was so intrigued by the story that on Aug. 11, he released a new podcast on Operation #GoldenGofer called “The Syndicate.”
“Colorado’s cannabis industry at that time was still relatively young, and it was booming,” Walker said. “So why take such a risk by operating a black-market operation where a legal industry was thriving? It turns out there were good reasons for that, and a lot of it had to do with state-by-state legalization.”
Broken down, the case goes a little something like this:
Tri Trong Nguyen served as the group’s ringleader and oversaw the growth and distribution of cannabis plants at thirteen warehouses located across Denver.
Nguyen and his wife, Kristen Root, and sisters Josie Phuong Farrow, Shelia Thi Kieu Lorenz, and Oanh Tran, allegedly laundered the money, allowing them to avoid paying about $700,000 in taxes.
To disguise their operation, they used business fronts such as a massage parlor and a property management company. To avoid federal attention, the group converted their profits into money orders that they would deposit in amounts under $3,000.
One of the best parts of this case? The smuggling ring also allegedly involved a sky-diving business owned by Joseph Johnson. Law enforcement believes that the planes were used to fly marijuana and cash to and from Colorado, Minnesota, and Texas.
“They made an example out of these guys, but it didn’t stop black market activity in Colorado, and it’s unclear if people are even paying attention to these large busts,” Walker said. “It really comes down to removing the incentives for these black market operations, and that largely rests on the fact that we have state-by-state legalization. As long as you leave that incentive to bring cannabis into those illegal markets where prices are elevated, there will be an argument for the federal legalization of cannabis.”
To learn more about the case, you can listen to “The Syndicate” on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.