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Dan Tang and Operation Fortune Cookie: A primer on Colorado's largest -- and most unusual -- indoor weed bust

Dan Tang.jpg
Big-time restaurateur Dan Tang is believed to be a the center of Colorado's largest -- and strangest -- indoor weed bust
With the sentencing of prominent restaurant owner Dan Tang this coming Wednesday, March 31, it seemed like the long, strange tale of Operation Fortune Cookie would finally be coming to an end. What started more than two and a half years ago as a vague police tip blossomed into the state's largest and most unusual indoor weed bust, then imploded among suspicions of law-enforcement snitches, reports of paid-off politicians and outcry over secret internal investigations.

And now there's a new chapter: Last Friday, the lead agent in the investigation and his law-enforcement colleague filed a lawsuit against their police departments, superiors and the drug task force on which they worked the case, alleging that they faced retaliation for speaking out about corruption.

The sordid tale has more twists and turns than a John le Carré novel. To keep it all straight, here's a handy timeline, complete with links to Westword coverage and relevant multimedia, of what's surely the state's most unusual weed bust.

1985: Dan Tang opens his restaurant Heaven Dragon in Thornton. He goes on to serve mayors, senators, governors -- and George W. Bush on three presidential visits.

2002: Denver International Airport police stop a man reportedly heading to Sacramento and find $52,000 taped to his ankles. The suspect said he works at Pearl Wok, a Broomfield restaurant registered under Tang's name with the secretary of state.

2002: An internal Thornton audit finds evidence that Heaven Dragon had underreported more than $500,000 in sales, for which it assesses a $38,800 penalty.

2005 or 2006: Two of Dan Tang's five brothers travel to Canada to learn how to become pot farmers, according to an arrest affidavit later filed in Adams County Court.

2006 and 2007: Law enforcement agents discover about 24,500 marijuana plants growing inside 51 suburban homes near Sacramento, California. Authorities say it was the work of a sophisticated Asian drug ring, and later court documents claim several of those involved who aren't busted move east to Colorado.

February 6, 2007: A highway patrol officer pulls over a U-Haul trailer outside of Salt Lake City, Utah and finds 600 marijuana seedlings and considerable grow equipment inside. The two men in the cab say they're coming from Sacramento and heading for Thornton, Colorado.

April 2007: Dan Tang is introduced to the idea of indoor marijuana grows by one of his brothers, according to DEA interview transcripts with Tang.

Spring 2007 to February 2008: Dozens of suburban ranch houses in and around Thornton are purchased and transformed into clandestine grow operations. Several of the owners are Tang's relatives or formerly worked at Heaven Dragon. Eighteen of the houses are purchased with the help of a former Heaven Dragon cook turned realtor.

2007: A Thornton revenue analysis later requested by investigators showed that Heaven Dragon's average monthly gross sales that year were $163,219, more than twice the average for similarly sized restaurants.

August 2007: Northglenn Detective Daniel Joyce, a member of the North Metro Task Force, follows up on a tip and uncovers a large-scale indoor marijuana grow ring he comes to believe is run by Tang and his family members.

September 2007: Because of the drug ring's extent, North Metro joins forces with the DEA on what's called internally "Operation Fortune Cookie."

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