Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007 | It’s about as isolated a spot as there is in San Diego County: A log cabin, built by drug dealers and raided by Drug Enforcement Agency special agents earlier this year. It features three bedrooms, a detached garage, and a high-tech security system. Perched atop Volcan Mountain, the cabin has sweeping views of the desert and its own private access roads that snake miles down the mountainside past trailers and rusted cars.
The garage comes with a hydraulic platform, hidden inside a closet, which drops to a 65-foot tunnel that eventually opens into a warehouse formerly used to grow hundreds of potent marijuana plants.
The log cabin will soon be for sale. The home, which once belonged to Encinitas resident Damien Andrews, is in the process of being forfeited to the U.S. government. Earlier this month, Andrews pleaded guilty to conspiracy to manufacture marijuana plants and laundering money. He was sentenced to 60 months in prison and was ordered to forfeit the cabin and his two other properties, a $1.4 million Encinitas beach house, and another home in Oceanside.
The sale of the extraordinary Santa Ysabel cabin will pose unique challenges for the U.S. Marshals Service, which oversees properties forfeited to the federal government by criminals. The Realtor chosen by the Marshals to list the property must convince buyers that the 39-acre site is a good investment, despite the fact that the cabin was built without permits and one of the bedrooms features a huge mural of an alien’s head.
And the forfeiture of this and Andrews’ two other properties — together valued at more than $2 million — offers insight into an aspect of prosecution and sentencing that is relatively rare in San Diego. Drug dealers don’t usually own much property, and when they do, it’s usually not worth being burdened with.
When and if the log cabin is eventually sold, it will be the closing scene of a drama that has been playing out since three confidential informants told a DEA special agent about Andrews’ clandestine subterranean marijuana forest.
The cabin was raided on a snowy morning in March by a team of DEA special agents, U.S. Marshals and local law enforcement officers. The agents, who arrived in a convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles, found a sophisticated marijuana growing facility complete with high-powered lights, a complicated ventilation system and 454 waist-high marijuana plants in full bloom.
“The room stank,” said Jeff Hamm, a local deputy sheriff who participated in the bust. “When you got out, you were hungry.”
A few months after the raid, Andrews pleaded guilty to conspiracy to grow marijuana and money laundering.
Andrews forfeited his three properties as part of his plea agreement, a measure his attorney, Michael Pancer, said was something his client could have fought in court. Rather than face a trial, Pancer said, Andrews decided to cooperate with prosecutors, and the forfeiture of the properties became a part of his plea negotiations.
John Kirby, a former federal prosecutor, said it’s fairly common for marijuana growers to be ordered to forfeit their properties. Under federal law, any property used to manufacture a controlled substance can be seized by the government. Similarly, any property bought with money obtained from drug manufacturing or dealing can be seized under federal forfeiture and money laundering laws.
In addition to his marijuana charge, Andrews was convicted of two counts of money laundering. He admitted to submit false information to mortgage lenders about the source of his income in order to buy his properties in Oceanside and Encinitas.
Because the payments on those loans were made with the proceeds from growing marijuana, the prosecuting attorneys charged Andrews with using the mortgages to launder money.
Now, the U.S. Marshals are waiting for the forfeiture procedure to be completed. Once the government has full ownership of the properties, a government spokeswoman said, the agency will list the properties with local Realtors, who will sell them on the open market.
Stacey Enniss, a Realtor with Red Hawk Realty in Santa Ysabel, said she’s already been contacted by the San Diego U.S. Marshals office as a possible listing agent for the log cabin.
The cabin was built by Andrews and his friends. With sweeping views down the north face of Volcan Mountain, the 39-acre property has its own well but is not connected to the electricity grid. The cabin itself was also built with no permits. And it was unfinished when it was raided.
The cabin was built from scratch. Andrews and his friends cut down all of the trees on his land and built a sawmill to turn the logs into wood for the cabin.
The bare walls and wood framing look like they were built by amateurs, Enniss said. She said there are clearly some deficiencies in the design of the home, though it has an attractive floor plan.
“It’s an inspector’s nightmare,” she said.
Because of the lack of permits, the property will have to be sold as land-only, Enniss said, which means the parcel is assessed as if the building doesn’t exist. She said the land has been valued at between $350,000 and $400,000. It’s unclear if the buyer will be allowed to keep the building.
Jim Schultz, a Realtor who often lists rural properties in Santa Ysabel and Julian, said the cabin has another thing going for it: Notoriety. Everybody’s heard about the cabin with the elevator and the underground tunnel and the marijuana growing rooms, Schultz said, and that could work in a Realtor’s favor.
“Sometimes a house’s really strange or bizarre notoriety can be a big drawing card that will attract buyers to at least come and see the property,” Schultz said.
Asked who she thinks might be interested in buying the isolated property, Enniss said she had some ideas about how the underground rooms could be used.
“I think it would make a unique wine cellar,” she said. “But the word on the hill is that another drug dealer might buy it.”
The “word on the hill” was one of the factors that led to Andrews getting caught in the first place.
Hamm, who has visited the property many times over the past few years, said he knew there was something strange going on in the cabin on the hill.
“If you’re in a rural area, trying to hide anything is very hard,” Hamm said. “You’re living in a fishbowl.”
“(Andrews) didn’t do a very good job of hiding what he was doing,” he added.
Indeed, considering the remoteness of the cabin, Hamm said, the regular comings and goings at Andrews’ property raised a few eyebrows in the local community. So it came as no surprise, Hamm said, when he found out the DEA was investigating Andrews.
Court documents show that the DEA special agent in charge of the investigation had obtained detailed information about Andrews’ marijuana growing property prior to the log cabin raid. The documents show that three confidential sources, including two informants with recent convictions for growing marijuana, told the special agent all about Andrews’ operation.
One of those sources had been told about the underground growing rooms by someone who helped build the house.
Court documents also show investigators attached a Global Positioning System tracking device to Andrews’ truck and searched his trash, his mail and his financial and tax histories before applying for a search warrant for the Santa Ysabel cabin.
Investigators tracked Andrews to and from a Pacific Beach hydroponics store and an Oceanside storage facility, where Andrews rented a locker. A worker at the storage facility helped the DEA agents with surveillance, the documents show, and led them to trash bags discarded by Andrews in a dumpster. Those bags contained traces of marijuana, along with documents and identification that eventually helped the investigators narrow in on Andrews’ operation.
DEA spokesman Dan Simmons said the lengths Andrews went to hide his growing operation should serve as a warning to other drug dealers in San Diego.
“We’ve done such a good job above ground that these growers have had to go underground,” Simmons said.
(Correction: The original version of this story erroneously identified the cabin as being located on Palomar Mountain. We regret the error.)