Search warrants served by the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office on a pair of properties near Bridgeville and Carlotta resulted in the arrest of a total of 10 people, including four foreign nationals from Bulgaria and Ukraine, a pair of Thai refugees and a number of naturalized citizens.
Sheriff's office Lt. Dave Morey said, at this point, it's unknown whether the operation evolved organically around Stanislaw Kopiej -- a 56-year-old German-born U.S. citizen who is the “prime suspect” in the case -- or if the operation was part of a larger drug trafficking organization that moved people into this country to provide labor.
Morey said the office's rural crimes deputy developed information in the course of another investigation of a large-scale grow at Kopiej's residence on the 3000 block of Hill Lane in Hydesville. Shortly after 8 a.m. Wednesday, deputies served a search warrant on the property and reported finding 428 pounds of dried marijuana, 429 growing marijuana plants in outdoor green houses, and seven firearms. Additionally, deputies found and seized more than $175,000 in cash, along with evidence of marijuana sales, Deputies also reported finding multiple cash transfers, in sums of up to $30,000, from Kopiej to a bank in Thailand. Morey said he couldn't provide any more information about the transfers.
Kopiej claimed the growing operation to be in compliance with state medical marijuana laws, but deputies disputed that, according to Morey, and took Kopiej into custody on suspicion of cultivating marijuana for sale, maintaining a residence for cultivation, possession of a controlled substance while armed with a firearm and storing firearms accessible to children.
Holds were also placed on Kopiej's bank accounts, according to the press release. He remained in the Humboldt County jail on $400,000 bail as of 4 p.m. Thursday.
Also arrested at the scene, according to the release, were Ka Sae Chang, 50, who is in the United States on a six-month tourist visa from Thailand, and Kia Song, 33, and Kor Vang, 38, both of whom are listed as legal refugees from Thailand.
Humboldt County Sheriff's Office Immigration Liaison Stan Wickham said Kopiej is Chang's son-in-law and said deputies found her behind a locked partition in a part of the residence used to process marijuana. Wickham said Chang posted bail, and was released from custody after turning her passport over to a bail bondsman.
Deputies also found Kopiej's wife, Nathida, and two of the couple's five children at the residence. In accordance with the Humboldt County Drug Endangered Children Protocol, Child Welfare Services were called to the scene to evaluate the need for placing the children in protective custody, according to the release. Based on the evaluation, the release said Nathida Kopiej was cited and released rather than arrested, and the children were left in the home.
As deputies were preparing to leave the residence, Thomas William Morgan -- a naturalized U.S. citizen from Bulgaria also known as Taco Nikolov Budnakov -- arrived at the scene and was determined to be involved with the marijuana cultivation operation, according to the release.
Deputies then served a search warrant on a property of Morgan's near Bridgeville and reported seizing 191 pounds of dried marijuana, 60 pounds of processed buds, a handgun and almost $40,000 in cash.
Six people were also arrested at the property, all on suspicion of cultivating marijuana: Clare Campbell, 54, of Crescent City; Sergey Markov, 27, a Bulgarian citizen; Mihail Stoev, 31, a Bulgarian citizen; Svetlana Blajeva, 50, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Bulgaria; Lulita Tsygankova, 23, a Ukrainian citizen; and Lulita Dimov, 30, a Bulgarian citizen.
Wickham said Markov, Stoev, Tsygankova and Dimov were all in the United States on student visas to attend the Center for Cultural Exchange, which had a temporary address in Virginia, but they went missing at various points within the last few years. Wickham said Tsygankova surfaced in March and filed papers seeking asylum in the United States but her case was never adjudicated. He said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has placed a temporary hold on Tsygankova while it investigates her immigration status, and has placed permanent holds on Markov, Stoev and Dimov.
Wickham said ICE may already have an open investigation into the four foreign nationals due to their being declared missing while here on student visas. Wickham said he will continue with ICE and other agencies in the coming days to determine each of the suspects' exact immigration status and backgrounds, and how they wound up in Humboldt County.