The Aguanga property where seven people involved in marijuana cultivation were fatally shot bears all the signs of a "major organized crime type operation," Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said Tuesday.
"It was a very large illegal marijuana grow," the sheriff said during a briefing at the agency's administration building in downtown Riverside. "There are multiple makeshift buildings. We located over 1,000 pounds of processed marijuana valued between $1 million to upwards of $5 million. They had a nursery type place for growing the plants, a place to dry the plants and places to process the plants."
The seven victims, none of whom have been identified, apparently were Laotian nationals who were among more than 20 individuals residing at the property, located amid rolling hills in the 45000 block of Highway 371, according to Bianco.
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"We were called to the property to investigate reports of assault with a deadly weapon," the sheriff said. "We found the victims in or around one of the dwellings."
By the time patrol deputies reached the remote location, the suspects had fled, he said. One shooting victim was still clinging to life, but the woman died a short time later in a hospital emergency room, according to the sheriff. The other six victims were pronounced dead at the scene.
"It was an obvious illegal marijuana processing center," Bianco said. "Not a small operation, but a major organized crime type operation."
The Anza Valley east of Temecula and south of Hemet has been the focus of prior sheriff's raids to take down illegal outdoor grows. It was unknown how long this one had been active.
"Marijuana is not a victimless crime," Bianco said. "Can you imagine if this had happened in a populated city where children were next door?"
He said so far in 2020 there have been eight incidents resulting in homicides at indoor and outdoor cannabis cultivation sites within the sheriff's jurisdiction.
"That's why we are enforcing warrants at these illegal marijuana grows," Bianco said. "We are not going to slow down."
The exact motive for the killings was unclear. No suspects have been identified.
Bianco said the FBI and other federal agencies have been requested to assist because evidence indicates the cultivation operation had connections in other states. The most telling aspect was that a number of vehicles found at the property were registered outside California, the sheriff said.
The property was evidently under lease.
Bianco said there does not appear to be a "threat to the general public" in connection with the killings.
Anyone with information was asked to contact the sheriff's Central Homicide Unit at 951-955-2777.