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Investigator stumbles across $500 million in poppy plants in rural Catawba County

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

The Washington Post

Cody Xiong cracked open his door, saw the investigator on his porch and ‘fessed up, authorities say.

“I guess,” Xiong said, “you are here for the opium.”

The investigator wasn’t. But suddenly, he was intrigued.

What followed was a massive opium bust, based entirely on a Catawba County poppy grower who thought prematurely that the jig was up.

His field contained about $500 million worth of opium-producing poppy plants, authorities said.

Xiong is charged with manufacturing a Schedule II drug and trafficking in opium, both felonies. He was arrested and released from jail on $45,000 bail.

Deputies spent days unearthing Xiong’s opium plants and his scheme, Catawba County Sheriff Coy Reid told The Washington Post. It was apparently based on the theory that no one would come looking for opium plants on a dead-end gravel road in the rural foothills of North Carolina.

“It was out there,” Reid said. “Only residents know that it is out there at the end of the road. It wasn’t something you could just ride by.”

Claremont, where authorities made the bust, has a population of roughly 1,400 people, according to the census, and is about an hour’s drive northwest of Charlotte.

The investigator was at Xiong’s property conducting a warrantless “knock and talk,” according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Reid said investigators received a tip about another matter. The sheriff wouldn’t disclose what it was but on Wednesday, deputies removed hundreds of animals from the same property, according to the Charlotte Observer.

The Observer reported that deputies confiscated 358 chickens, dogs and cats after they were removed by the county’s animal services. County officials said in a statement that they are investigating whether the chickens were used for cockfighting. The animals are being examined, tested for communicable diseases and evaluated for being placed in new homes.

The poppies, with their bulging seed pods, were planted in tidy rows behind Xiong’s home and were obscured by trees.

They have to be weighed before investigators know the exact value of the haul, but authorities figure there were about 2,000 pounds of poppies in all, valued at an estimated half-billion dollars.

Reid’s investigators believe the plants were being grown and harvested in Catawba County, then shipped elsewhere to be turned into heroin.

The sap from seed pods of opium poppies is extracted after slitting the bulb, according to a PBS “Frontline” story on the drug trade. Then, the jellylike fluid can be combined with other chemicals to produce a range of opiates including morphine, codeine and heroin.

There are many varieties of poppies, often distinguished by their bright flowers; among them, the opium poppy, or Papaver somniferum, is the only one that’s illegal to grow.

Only people or companies registered with the Food and Drug Administration — legal drug manufacturers, for example — can possess the plant, according to Barbara Carreno, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Possessing the edible seeds, however, is legal.

The investigation into Xiong’s operation is ongoing and now involves DEA agents.

Sheriff’s deputies were turned into de facto farm hands, pulling the plants and loading them into trailers.

Catawba County has a deadly history with opium. The drug was responsible for the worst mass killing in the county’s history — slayings in 2009 that residents still refer to as “the opium murders.”

A woman and her three children were found shot and stabbed to death inside their Catawba County home, according to the Associated Press.

Investigators say the woman’s husband, Brian Tzeo, was involved in an interstate opium trafficking ring. He’d get opium from Thailand, convert it to heroin and then give it to a woman who’d take it to Wisconsin to sell.

The killers came looking for Tzeo, drugs and cash, but he was at work.

They found his family instead, including his 4-year-old son whom investigators found shot to death with his fingers still inside his cereal bowl.

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