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Early in the morning on Nov. 4, Lavell Russell received a phone call from a friend who told him that his cannabis shop, Only Good Weed, had been “trashed and robbed.” Russell drove to the store, a small commercial building on the corner of High Street and Fairfax Avenue in East Oakland, and found the area had become a crime scene. Someone had rammed an SUV into the front of the building, destroying a metal security gate and smashing a hole in the entranceway.
A witness reported to OPD that 10 people broke in. Russell said products, electronics, and cash were stolen from his business, which he co-owns with 14 others.
“It’s sickening,” he said in a recent interview. “You work so hard to get to a place where you can open the doors. And overnight it’s taken from you.”
Earlier on the same night, security guard Mathew Tippetts was sitting in his vehicle in the parking lot of Harborside, a cannabis dispensary located on Embarcadero at 16th Avenue, when suddenly, dozens of people, some wearing ski masks and carrying bags, jumped out of cars parked nearby. As the crowd rushed the building and attempted to break in, all Tippetts could do was block the front entrance with his vehicle and call 911.
“It was just overwhelming numbers and vehicles,” Tippetts said. “I wasn’t going to try to be Superman and stop everything. You don’t know how many of them are armed.”
Harborside’s owners had recently outfitted their dispensary with bars over the windows and a roll-down metal door to protect the entrance. The new security measures worked. Tippetts said the burglars quickly left once they realized it would be difficult to break in. But the caravan moved on to other targets. Throughout the night they hit several other cannabis businesses, electronics stores, pharmacies, and shoe shops, got into a shootout with a security guard, and may have been involved with a second shooting. The next night, the caravans appeared again, breaking into a Walmart in San Leandro, a sporting goods store in San Lorenzo, and a mall in Richmond.
Burglaries and robberies have long been a problem for Oakland cannabis businesses. But in 2020, the threat morphed into something new: large groups of burglars, some of them armed, taking advantage of moments of social upheaval—when police are preoccupied with protesters in other parts of the city—to hit multiple businesses in the same night. They travel in fast-moving car caravans and strike in overwhelming numbers so that security guards don’t stand a chance.
In a year when many businesses have been rocked by the global pandemic and widespread political unrest, Oakland’s cannabis industry stands out as having also faced a staggering spree of burglaries and robberies.
Using social unrest as cover for a crime spree
The East Bay’s robbery caravans first appeared during the George Floyd protests in late May and early June. Starting on the night of May 29, police noticed groups of 15 to 25 cars joined together in roving squads, converging on single locations to commit burglary, and sometimes using force on security guards and others, resulting in a robbery. Sgt. Ray Kelly from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office said that in the following days, the caravans had a massive impact across the region. They burglarized businesses in nearly every city along the I-880 corridor, including Oakland, Emeryville, San Leandro, Hayward, Fremont, and Union City.
During that five-day period, at any given time, there were multiple caravans operating in Oakland and other parts of the East Bay, breaking into businesses, quickly emptying shelves of products, and taking cash and other valuables before moving on to the next target.
Cannabis was the single biggest target. Speaking at the September meeting of the Oakland Cannabis Regulatory Commission, OPD Captain Carlos Gonzalez said that Oakland police arrested people attempting to break into 12 different cannabis businesses over a four-day period from May 29 to June 1, 2020. This only covered the locations where OPD made it to the scene to make arrests. Because the department concentrated their officers in downtown Oakland where protests were happening those nights, few officers were available to respond to burglaries and robberies. Multiple cannabis business owners said that OPD officers took hours to respond after they reported break-ins.
Greg Minor, the assistant to the Oakland city administrator who oversees cannabis permits, told The Oaklandside in an interview that nearly every single cannabis dispensary in the city was robbed during the civil unrest in May and early June, with some businesses repeatedly broken into.
The scale of the crime wave was enormous. James Anthony, an attorney who chairs Oakland Citizens for Equity and Prosperity, a cannabis industry association, estimates that tens of millions of dollars worth of product and cash was stolen from cannabis businesses across the city.
“It was a big goddamn payday,” he said.
The crime spree also resulted in violence. OPD Captain Russell Wingate said during an interview that on May 29, members of one caravan got in a shootout with security guards at the site of a robbery, resulting in multiple deaths.
Perhaps sensing that mass protests would happen again in downtown Oakland on election night, Nov. 3, over 100 people participated in another spree of caravan burglaries.
“Roving teams of armed robbers caravanned across the city and the region targeting businesses with high-value consumer goods, including cannabis businesses, pharmacies, electronics stores, and other retail merchants,” OPD said in a Nov. 4 statement. In a follow-up statement on Dec. 18, OPD’s Interim Police Chief Susan Manheimer said “the caravan consisted of between 40 and 100 cars, with groups splitting up and simultaneously targeting different businesses in different areas of our city.”
OPD first received a report at 9:15 p.m. that a burglary took place at an auto body shop on the 9900 block of San Leandro Street. Then at 9:28 p.m., police heard that a break-in took place on the 8400 block of Amelia Street. Five minutes later, another call came in to police that over 100 people were burglarizing a cannabis cultivation business on the 200 block of Hegenberger Road. According to OPD, caravan break-ins were also reported on the 700 block of east 11th Street and the 10900 block of International Boulevard.
Manheimer said that one of the caravans of about 40 vehicles attempted to break into the Blunts and Moore dispensary on the 700 block of 66th Avenue, using a vehicle to crash through the business’s front gate. She said that OPD officers then tracked that same caravan to the 1400 block of 92nd Avenue. Captain Wingate, describing the same incident to the Cannabis Regulatory Commission at its December meeting, said that it was shortly after 10 p.m. when the members of that caravan attempted to break into an unlicensed cannabis grow operation on that block. That’s when OPD officers attempted to arrest some of the suspects.
According to OPD, it was a chaotic scene on the primarily residential street, with suspects running past officers and vehicles trying to escape the area as police moved in. “Vehicles were crowding into the area from all directions,” said OPD Chief Manheimer in a statement released earlier this month. When police officers intervened, “many of the group ran away, while others attempted to flee in their cars.”
OPD recently released a video of the incident including officer body camera footage and recordings from a private security camera. The video shows that during the police confrontation, 92nd Avenue was clogged with cars. Multiple vehicles drove up on the sidewalk, presumably to get around the jam.
One white sedan, which OPD said was driven by Jonathan Torres Ramirez, 20, drove onto the sidewalk. The security camera footage shows that the white sedan then hit, and ran over, a police officer and struck a stop sign and came to a stop. The car came close to hitting a second officer and a person the officer was trying to detain on the ground, but OPD said in their statement that the pair was narrowly missed. The driver then put the car in reverse, driving back over the officer who was pinned under the car. In body camera footage, a third officer, who OPD has identified as Dinesh Jagar, can be seen running at the car yelling “stop.” He then fired his rifle into the windshield. OPD said the driver, Ramirez, was hit by the gunshots, and died on the scene. The officer who was run over survived with serious injuries.
In their Nov. 4 press release on the subject, OPD said that four officers were injured during the incident and that police recovered nine firearms. Police arrested 21 people at the scene. The mass-arrest only temporarily slowed the crime spree. Wingate said that 90 minutes later, a new caravan assembled and hit a CVS, a Starbucks, and a cell phone store.
The night was hardly over. Just after 11 p.m., a caravan of around 50 vehicles converged on the 8400 block of Baldwin Avenue near the Coliseum in East Oakland, where dozens of people attempted to break into a cannabis manufacturing business, according to one police witness. A security guard was shot during a gunfight with some of the people trying to rob the shop. The guard survived and was transported to a local hospital for treatment.
Between 11:40 p.m. and 1:23 a.m. OPD officers responded to five other break-ins linked to the caravans, including 10 to 12 cars that pulled up to the Best Buy on the 3700 block of Mandela Parkway, 30 to 40 people at the Starbucks on the 3000 block of East 9th Street, two people at a cannabis grow on the 8100 block of MacArthur Boulevard, the incident at Only Good Weed where suspects used a vehicle to force entry, and over 50 people stealing from Shoe Palace on the 10700 block of MacArthur Boulevard. Finally, at 1:30 a.m OPD received reports of a shooting involving five people on the 4200 block of MacArthur.
At least eight cannabis businesses were targeted on election night, including both licensed and unlicensed businesses.
Why are cannabis businesses being targeted?
Oakland began licensing its first medical marijuana dispensaries in 2004, but the city did not start licensing cannabis supply chain businesses like warehouses where cannabis plants are grown, or factories that make edible products, until 2017. For over a decade, there were businesses that had permits to sell cannabis flowers and edibles in Oakland, but there wasn’t a single business that was actually allowed to produce or distribute the products that the dispensaries displayed on their shelves.
“The supply chain wasn’t visible, but believe you me, there was plenty of medical cannabis being cultivated in Oakland at that time,” said Anthony, the cannabis industry attorney.
Cannabis supply chain businesses were often targeted by robbers in the period between 2004 and 2017. Part of the reason was that growers and manufacturers were operating in a legal grey area and they often didn’t contact law enforcement after a robbery.
“The impression of the people who were burglarizing or robbing was that there were no repercussions, that the security was minimal, most likely that the proprietors wouldn’t call the cops, and even if they did, OPD’s response would not be particularly effective,” Anthony said.
The problem didn’t go away after the state legalized cannabis in 2017.
“We’ve continually seen cannabis businesses be targeted because folks understand that there is cash on hand,” said Josh Drayton, communications director for the California Cannabis Industry Association.
Because marijuana is still illegal under federal law, banks often refuse services to cannabis businesses, even in states like California where they’re legal. Some of the largest companies in the industry have found ways to establish banking relationships, but it’s an expensive process and most operate without bank accounts. The result is that lots of cannabis businesses have large amounts of cash on hand.
Ted Whitney is the vice president of operations at Nug, a large company headquartered in Oakland that produces and sells marijuana at multiple locations throughout the state. Nug was recently able to establish a banking relationship, but before that, cash flow was a massive problem.
“It was like doing business in 1870,” Whitney said.
He recalled one time where the company had to make a multi-million dollar tax payment, and they had to do it in cash. “We were putting one of our founders into a bulletproof vest, and he’s driving over to the city hall to deliver the money,” Whitney said.
There is a lot of money flowing through this cash-on-hand industry. For the 2019 tax year, the city of Oakland reported that the combined total gross receipts of 195 licensed cannabis companies was over $165 million. And the market is growing: as of this month, the city has issued 297 permits to cannabis businesses and over 408 additional permit applicants operate under provisional state licenses.
Many other cannabis businesses run completely outside the formal permitting systems. Industry researchers estimate that the unlicensed cannabis market in California is more than double the size of the licensed market. That thriving unlicensed market means there are plenty of opportunities to sell stolen cannabis.
Who’s behind the caravan robberies?
Although arrest records paint a partial picture, it’s not entirely clear who the people are who have participated in these new kinds of burglaries and robberies and how they’re organizing.
When asked who OPD thinks is behind the caravans, Capt. Wingate told the cannabis commission that he doesn’t think they are “career criminals.” He added that the department thinks there may be overlap between people who participate in sideshows—illegal stunt driving rallies—and the caravans.
Police records don’t provide a clear picture of who is planning and participating in the caravans. The Oaklandside obtained a list of the people arrested on Nov. 3 by OPD and examined their backgrounds. (We’re not naming them because they haven’t been convicted.) Ten of the 21 people OPD arrested on November 3 were from Oakland, and the rest were from other cities in the region, including Stockton and Sacramento. Eleven of the people were 21 years old or younger, including three juveniles. Six were between 23 and 29 years old, and a 31- and a 36-year-old were also taken into custody.
Six of the 21 people arrested have criminal records in Alameda County. One 26-year-old was sent to prison twice in the past for assault charges, including assault with a deadly weapon.
Two people, 44 and 68 years old respectively, were arrested for unlawful cultivation of marijuana. They presumably worked at the unlicensed grow operation that was robbed.
During the cannabis commission meeting, Wingate said that someone from Reno, Nevada was also arrested in connection to the caravan.
The team at Nug has a different theory about who is behind the robberies. Their Oakland facility was robbed during the George Floyd protests. Whitney said that when they reviewed their security camera footage, they noticed that there seemed to be two different groups storming their building. One small squad appeared to have a precise plan, while the rest of the robbers wandered aimlessly, grabbing whatever they happened to find.
“They went straight to our dry rooms, they went straight to our grow rooms, straight to our finished inventory holding areas, and absolutely gutted those,” Whitney said.
The team at Nug speculates that career criminals from the east coast, where most states don’t have cannabis dispensaries, planned out the burglary well in advance and then recruited local young people over social media to boost their numbers.
Pedro Fonseca from Harborside thinks that the masterminds behind a robbery that hit their dispensary during the George Floyd protests came from Chicago.
“California is the golden goose of cannabis,” he said. “So they basically know they can come and hit 30 dispensaries in multiple cities and get in, get out, and never come back.”
Sgt. Kelly from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office said his department does not have evidence that organized criminals are travelling from across the country to target cannabis businesses in Oakland. His office’s theory is that the caravans are driven by local young people who coordinate with each other using social media and texting. “I think it’s more of a pack mentality than it is an organized crime mentality,” he said.
Others in the community agree that the robbery caravans are likely a homegrown problem, and that there are solutions that could prevent future robberies and prevent young people from being arrested on serious charges.
Charles Reed is an organizer with The Emerald New Deal, a campaign advocating that 100% of the tax revenue generated by Oakland’s legal cannabis industry go to social programs in the communities most harmed by the War on Drugs. He doesn’t think it’s valuable to speculate about out-of-staters planning heists.
“That is just another way of deflecting from the real problem,” he said.
Reed, an Oakland native, looks at the issue from the perspective of the people who have been disenfranchised in the city. “We’ve been selling weed in the streets for our whole lifetime in order to survive,” he said.
Reed felt that when cannabis became legal, it came with a promise that Oaklanders who had been selling weed for years would have the opportunity to have legitimate businesses, but that wasn’t what happened. Oakland did establish a cannabis equity program that has carved out space in the industry for people formerly targeted by law enforcement, but Reed feels that huge inequities still remain. “These corporate people, these rich people moved in and took over the industry,” he said. “And then didn’t consult us, didn’t talk to the community, and have actually no respect for the community.”
Reed believes that race is at the center of this issue, “because the corporate cannabis industry is a white male dominated industry that allows actually no opportunity for people of color to reach a level of success that they had [before legalization],” he said.
“Cannabis is the new cotton,” he said. “Why the hell do you think you wouldn’t get robbed?”
At the December 3 meeting of the city’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission, commissioner Lanese Martin shared similar concerns about how the legalization of cannabis hasn’t created an equitable industry.
“The same people who are likely to rob cannabis businesses… are probably the same population that were drastically over policed for cannabis during the drug war,” she said. “It points to the fact that the systemic issue hasn’t really been addressed by legalizing cannabis.”
Can police prevent future caravan robberies?
Several cannabis businesses told The Oaklandside that after the first caravan robberies in May and June, OPD made efforts to ramp up protection for the industry. The department sent officers to familiarize themselves with cannabis facilities, gave security advice to the companies, and set up an email and text list to share alerts.
Pedro Fonseca of Harborside has communicated with police departments in San Jose, San Leandro, and Oakland. “Oakland was the most responsive police department that we had,” he said. “I had the chief of police and the SWAT team captain on speed dial.”
Capt. Wingate told the Cannabis Regulatory Commission that OPD sees these caravan robberies as a significant threat to the city. Law enforcement agencies from throughout Alameda County are developing a county-wide collaborative protocol for when the next caravans hit.
But some in the industry are critical of OPD’s track record with cannabis businesses. John Oram, CEO of Nug, said that law enforcement only began paying serious attention to the industry after a group of cannabis business owners joined together to advocate for themselves in the wake of the spring robbery spree. He thinks that’s unacceptable.
“Cannabis licensees are one of the largest taxpayers in the city,” Oram said. “We are frustrated paying 10% of our gross revenue to be in a city that doesn’t support us and doesn’t provide us protection.”
In 2020, Oakland created a new tiered tax system and the largest cannabis businesses now pay 9.5% taxes for their non-medical business.
Debby Goldsberry, the CEO of Magnolia Wellness, said she thinks that OPD has not been effective at protecting cannabis businesses.
“They have stepped up to try and improve response the second time around [on election night]. But that response included shooting and killing a 20-year-old man. That is not the solution,” she said. “The idea is that we don’t kill each other over cannabis. That’s just the bottom line.”
Fallout for the industry
Oakland’s cannabis industry is still recovering from the caravan sprees. Magnolia Wellness was burglarized twice during the George Floyd protests, and again on election night. Goldsberry said that the dispensary reopened last week for the first time since June, with the help of their friends at a larger cannabis company, Grupo Flor. They renamed the dispensary space Flor in recognition of that support. But for over six months, their 26 employees were either laid off or furloughed. Goldsberry explained that because they’re a cannabis business, their company was locked out of many of the federal and state coronavirus relief programs.
Oram said that after the dust settled in June, Nug had combined losses over $2.5 million from their facilities across the state, and the majority were due to the Oakland robberies. Whitney said they were forced to sell two buildings. On top of that, Oram said that their insurance company refused to cover their losses. “We’re dealing with a federally illegal substance,” Oram said. “So it’s very easy for an insurance company to say, you know what, we just don’t want to insure you any longer.”
When The Oaklandside visited Only Good Weed two weeks after they were burglarized, the twisted gate that couldn’t withstand the car ramming was still laying out in front of the store. The front wall of the building was repaired, but the shop’s shelves remained mostly empty. A touch-screen computer kiosk displaying a menu of goods was the only sign that the store was still open. Russell said that closing temporarily didn’t feel like an option.
“As a small company, we have to stay open or we’ll go out of business,” he said. “So we’re just fighting back as we continue to stay open.” He said that their insurance company hasn’t covered their losses, claiming that the burglary was connected to rioting, which isn’t included under their policy. So instead, Only Good Weed has turned to a GoFundMe page to raise funds.
“We still have a long way to go,” Russell said. “But we’re not letting one bad seed ruin everything that we built.”
Brian Howey contributed reporting to this story.
Correction: we misspelled Debby Goldsberry’s last name.