Stick-up gang may be targeting pot dealers

Police investigating the home invasion shooting of two Chico men are looking into the possibility that the incident is linked to a rash of robberies related to the marijuana trade.

Since January 2002, there have been at least 17 home invasions locally, some of which have resulted in robberies, assaults and homicides, said Chico Police Detective Sergeant Dave Barrow. Of those invasions, Barrow said, “I can’t remember one that didn’t involve drugs.”

The shooting of Dave O’Brien, 18, and Trevor Wilk, 20, occurred just before 6 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 21. The roommates, occupants of a residence near 10th and Ivy streets, were asleep in their rooms when O’Brien heard suspicious noises and got up to investigate. As he opened his bedroom door, he was confronted by two or three intruders wearing ski masks, at least one of whom was armed with a handgun. O’Brien was shot through the abdomen, and his roommate, who was in an adjacent bedroom, was shot in the neck, though investigators aren’t sure who was shot first.

Both victims were taken to Enloe Medical Center, where O’Brien was treated and released. Wilk was said to be in critical condition, and non-hospital sources said he may be permanently paralyzed from the neck down.

There was early speculation that the shooting may have stemmed from a love triangle situation one of the victims was said to be involved in, but Barrow said that notion had been thoroughly discredited by investigators. Instead, with the discovery of a marijuana grow room in the victims’ attic, police are looking at suspects who may have committed prior home invasions in the area.

The latest incident appears to follow a pattern of similar home invasions in which the victims may have been selling marijuana. Although nothing was reported stolen in this case, the motive behind home invasions is almost always robbery, and the most sought-after prize seems to be cash from marijuana sales, Barrow said.

While many wannabe dealers look at the marijuana trade as being just as lucrative but less risky than selling harder drugs, the laid-back approach pot dealers often take in selling their product is enticing to some hardcore criminals, who see small-time weed peddlers as easy marks. Dealers in cocaine and heroin, for instance, have a reputation for violence and more often have backing from larger criminal organizations, while marijuana is often grown and sold by young people who have little or no criminal experience.

Often, a home invasion victim will have been staked out by a member of the robber’s gang. The gang’s informant sometimes will buy a small amount of pot and then provide intelligence to other gang members, who then carry out the robbery, Barrow said. In other cases, robbers have been known to break into the wrong house, creating a frightening and potentially deadly situation for the occupants. Home invasions are almost never undertaken randomly.

Another reason marijuana sellers have become common targets of hold-up men stems from the illegality of their product, which makes them reluctant to report robberies to police. In many cases, however, police are more interested in catching violent criminals than in arresting those criminals’ prey. While Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey would not rule out pressing charges on the two victims of the latest shooting, he said he was not actively pursuing that option.

"People who have been ripped off and don’t report it are encouraging these kinds of crimes," Ramsey said. "[In these cases,] the robbers are counting on the silence of their victims."