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Police Report: Leaky Ceiling Revealed Marijuana Grow Operation at Meijer Last Spring

Posted on Jan 20, 2013:5:59 a.m.
By John Counts
Read the original story here!

Pittsfield Township police discovered these marijuana plants at a nail salon in the upper level of Meijer on Carpenter Road after water from hydroponic equipment leaked onto the main level.

Courtesy of Pittsfield Township police Previous Story A shopper at Meijer might stop in to pick up groceries, buy stamps or even get a haircut. A joint generally isn’t on the shopping list.

The discovery by police last April of 77 marijuana plants at a nail salon located within the busy Pittsfield Township Meijer on Carpenter Road shocked those who frequent the store.

Authorities seized the plants and thousands of dollars worth of growing equipment. Two men were questioned — the US Nails lease-holder, 26-year-old Tai Anh Nguyen, of Ypsilanti, and his cousin, 24-year-old Phu Danny-Quoc Nguyen, of Ypsilanti Township, who had a medical marijuana card and was a certified caregiver.

Phu Nguyen was eventually sentenced to one year of probation in the case after pleading guilty to possession of marijuana, a misdemeanor. Prosecutors dismissed a felony charge of delivery and/or manufacture of a controlled substance.

Police were led to this closet in the back of U.S. Nails. Courtesy of Pittsfield Township police Steve Hiller, of the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office, called the grow operation “amateurish.” Ann Arbor-area attorney James Fifelski, who specializes in medical marijuana cases and represented Phu Nguyen, said the case exemplifies problems with state marijuana laws.

And it all started with a water leak. ‘Water flowing onto the floor’ At first, the manager of the Meijer store at 3825 Carpenter Road through the water dripping from the ceiling down into the store’s cafeteria was condensation from air conditioners that had been turned on due to unseasonably warm weather in April, according to police reports obtained by through the Freedom of Information Act. Then on April 17, 2012, the manager received a call from the grocery manager who said there was “water flowing onto the ground” of the Meijer main level, the report said.

The general manager now thought there was a plumbing problem, but in order to call a plumber, he needed to know what he was dealing with. So he followed the water to its source, the report said. That was on the upper level, where U.S. Nails was located. Using a master key, the manager let himself in and noticed a puddle near a partially opened closet. There was also a light on. Inside he saw “numerous plants he believed were marijuana,” the report said. “It appeared as though the water that was being used to grow the plants in the closet was overflowing and causing the water to fall through the floor into the ceiling.”

The manager called police around 12:41 a.m. According to the report, the Pittsfield Township police officer who arrived on the scene noticed that there was a chair outside the closet door “that had what appeared to be a hydroponic water filter sitting on top of it and a tube running from the water filter into the closet, preventing the door from closing.” In addition to a big light on the ceiling of the closet, there was ventilation tubing running throughout the ceiling. The water was overflowing onto the floor from a large plastic bin housing 70 of the smaller plants, the report said.Police found seven more mature plants about a foot and a half tall and larger, according to the report.

At this point, police obtained a search warrant, which was authorized at 6:10 a.m. Officers from Livingston and Washtenaw Narcotics Enforcement Team (LAWNET) conducted the search along with Pittsfield police.

“While performing a search of the business, a door was located in the main area of the business (that) appeared to be providing access to a room that had been recently constructed within the business,” the report said.

Phu Nguyen told police this recently constructed room in the back of the nail and tanning salon was intended to use to expand the operation. Courtesy of Pittsfield Township police The room seemed to be intended for “a larger scale marijuana growing operation.” Police eventually seized roughly $6,725 worth of marijuana growing equipment, including 11 grow lights, 11 transformers, four inline fans, one reverse osmosis filter and one carbon filter. Police also seized the 77 marijuana plants.

The Suspects

Tai and Phu Nguyen arrived at the store that morning and were questioned by police, the report said. At first Phu Nguyen said they had come to Meijer to get something to eat. Police found $688 on Tai Nguyen, who would not answer many questions, though he did eventually admit he worked at U.S. Nails, the report indicated. The report said he told police his mother had given him the money because he was going to court in Canton Township for a marijuana infraction. Later, when asked the same question, he told police his mother gave him the money for car repairs. Police confiscated the money.

“Tai was in possession of a large amount of U.S. currency and it was in denominations which are consistent with narcotics sales,” the Pittsfield officer wrote in the report.

The men would again change their stories when interviewed by police in the presence of their attorney a few weeks later. The morning of the marijuana discovery, however, both men were released pending further investigation.

Police also sent a letter to Meijer corporate offices about the incident.

The Case's Outcome

Fifelski said he specializes in criminal law — and even more specifically — medical marijuana cases. His website describes him as “Michigan Medical Marijuana Lawyer James Fifelski.” Officers from LAWNET met with Tai and Phu Nguyen at Fifelski’s office on May 4, according to the report. The interview revealed that Tai Nguyen didn’t have a medical marijuana card. Phu Nguyen did have a card — for “chronic pain,” the report said — as well as a caregiver card. Caregivers are allowed to grow 12 plants per patient, Fifelski said. Phu Nguyen told police he had one patient — a cousin. It’s not clear from the report if Tai Nguyen was that cousin.

Phu Nguyen said he had only set of keys to the closet where the marijuana was being grown, something he told police he’d only been doing for about a month, the report said. He also said the larger room was indeed a new space to expand the grow operation. Tai Nguyen said he knew his cousin was growing marijuana, but that he “did not help in moving or caring for the marijuana plants,” the report said.

In the end, Phu Nguyen would be the only one charged. “He complied in many ways, but recognized he didn’t do everything perfect to the letter of the law,” Fifelski said. Phu Nguyen’s was initially charged with delivery/manufacturing of a controlled substance, a felony. In October, he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor possession charge. Hiller said prosecutors look at all cases individually. “We have to look at the circumstances,” he added. “(This) was not a huge grow operation.” Hiller said prosecutors agreed to the misdemeanor because the operation was “amateurish” compared with others and that the chances of Phu Nguyen going to prison on a felony charge were “pretty slim” considering his record was clean.

Tai Nguyen’s $688 was released back to him on Aug. 13. Then in October, Judge Richard Conlin sentenced Phu Nguyen to one year of probation with several conditions, according to court records. While he is on probation, Phu Nguyen cannot use marijuana and will undergo random drug testing. He was stripped of his caregiver status and cannot possess any grow equipment, which had to be sold to a court-approved third party. The status of his medical marijuana card was left up to the probation office and the treating physician, according to court records.

Gray Areas in Green Laws

Fifelski said the case’s outcomes were “good” and “fair.” “I think this case is an example of the fact that there are some gray areas with the medical marijuana program,” he said.

The space that U.S. Nails once occupied has been rehabbed and is up for lease, according to a Meijer spokesman. Courtesy of Pittsfield Township police Cloning is one of those fuzzy areas, Fifelski said. He explained that while there were officially 77 marijuana plants seized, 70 of those were tiny clones from the bigger plants that contain no THC. Fifelski said the law is not clear on how to count clones. “That’s why there was some debate and compromise," he added.

Fifelski hopes higher courts and the state legislature make aspects of the law more clear in the future. For instance, whether or not Phu Nyguen was allowed to legally be growing marijuana in the Meijer as a caregiver is not addressed in the law, Fifelski said, though he did say a landlord can set his own policies regarding controlled substances on the premises.

Apparently Meijer wasn’t happy with the goings-on at U.S. Nails. Frank Guglielmi, a spokesman for the chain, said the space once occupied by the nail and tanning salon is now empty. “We terminated their contract when all this happened,” he said. The entire space has been rehabbed and is now for lease, Guglielmi said.