A quadruple murder at an illegal marijuana farm in Kingfisher County, Oklahoma, opened a window into a disturbing reality. Chinese criminal networks have taken over much of the illicit marijuana market in the U.S., stoking a wave of crime that includes violence, money laundering and human trafficking. And authorities suspect some of those involved have links to powerful forces in the Chinese state.

Series by The Frontier and ProPublica
Written by Clifton Adcock and Garrett Yalch, The Frontier. And Sebastian Rotella and Kirsten Berg, ProPublica.

Gangsters, money and murder: How Chinese organized crime is dominating Oklahoma’s illegal medical marijuana market

It seemed an unlikely spot for a showdown between Chinese gangsters: a marijuana farm on the prairie in Kingfisher County, Oklahoma. 

On a Sunday evening in late November 2022, a blue Toyota Corolla sped down a dirt-and-gravel road in the twilight, passing hay meadows and columns of giant wind turbines spinning on the horizon. The Corolla braked and turned, headlights sweeping across prairie grass, and entered the driveway of a 10-acre compound filled with circular huts and row after row of greenhouses. Past a ranch house, the sedan stopped outside a large detached garage.

The driver, Chen Wu, burst out of the car with a 9 mm pistol in his hand. Balding and muscular, he had worked at the farm and invested in the illegal marijuana operation. 

Charging into the garage, Wu confronted the five men and one woman working inside. Like him, they were immigrants from China. Piles of marijuana leaves cluttered the brightly lit room, covering a table and stuffed into plastic bins and cardboard boxes. 

Wu aimed his gun at He Qiang Chen, a 56-year-old ex-convict known at the farm as “the Boss.” Chen had a temper; he was awaiting trial in the beating and shooting of a man two years earlier at a Chinese community center in Oklahoma City. 

Before Chen could make a move, Wu shot him in the right knee. The boss fell to the floor, writhing in pain. 

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A diplomat’s visits to Oklahoma highlight contacts between Chinese officials and community leaders accused of crimes

The photos look like a routine encounter between a senior Chinese diplomat and immigrants in the American heartland: dutiful smiles, casual clothes, a teapot on a table, Chinese and U.S. flags on the wall.

But behind the images, there is a potentially concerning story. During two trips to Oklahoma, Consul General Zhu Di of the Chinese embassy visited a cultural association that has been a  target of investigations into Chinese mafias that dominate the state’s billion-dollar marijuana industry. And the community leaders posing with him in the photos? A number of them have pleaded guilty or been prosecuted or investigated for drug-related crimes, according to court documents, public records, photos and social media posts.

“He’s meeting with known criminals,” said Donnie Anderson, the director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, in an interview.

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A marijuana boom led her to Oklahoma.
Then anti-drug agents seized her money and raided her home

Qiu He remembers sitting handcuffed on her front porch, her two small children huddled next to her, as state anti-drug agents carrying semi-automatic rifles trooped in and out of her house.

Serving a search warrant, the agents had forced open the front door and arrested her after she allegedly resisted them, according to an affidavit. During the raid last April, agents said they found ledgers, bags of marijuana, a loaded .380-caliber pistol and other evidence they collected as part of an investigation alleging that she is a central figure in an illegal scheme involving at least 23 marijuana operations in central Oklahoma.

She spent the night in jail. Almost a year later, authorities have still not charged her with a crime. But a few days after her arrest, a judge signed an order freezing her bank accounts and agents seized almost a million dollars from the accounts as suspected criminal proceeds. She is fighting the state’s action to confiscate the money, saying she did nothing illegal.

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Jiaai Zeng died weeks after starting work at an Oklahoma marijuana farm. His family wants answers.

On the morning of April 12, the farmworker woke up struggling to breathe and delirious with fever.

Jiaai Zeng had spent the past month working nonstop at a marijuana farm in Oklahoma run by fellow Chinese immigrants. The job was brutal, the 57-year-old had told relatives in New York. He said his bosses made him labor up to 15 hours a day in the blast-furnace heat of a greenhouse. He was feeling awful even after a visit to the doctor, so he planned to return to New York that evening for medical treatment.

At 9:38 a.m., Zeng sent an audio message to a cousin in Manhattan’s Chinatown. In an agonized whisper, he asked her to buy a bag of oranges for when he arrived.

“I don’t want to eat anything,” he said, speaking a dialect of Fujian province. “I just want to take a look at oranges and see if I’ll have an appetite.”

About an hour later, Zeng was unconscious and had no pulse when three people from the farm drove him to a nearby hospital. They dropped him off and left in a hurry while doctors were trying to revive him, according to a hospital report.

By 11:05 a.m., Zeng was dead.

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Listen Frontier: Our investigation into abuse and exploitation at Oklahoma marijuana farms

On this episode of Listen Frontier, Frontier executive editor Dylan Goforth talks with reporters Garrett Yalch and Clifton Adcock about their year-long investigation into Oklahoma’s medical marijuana industry.

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