Marijuana Goes Upstate

Florida moves into the number two spot when it comes to grow houses

 View a slideshow from several busted grow houses around South Florida.

On October 18 at 10:22 p.m., Betty was watching television in the living room of her pleasant three-bedroom home in Lehigh Acres, a rural community of 90,000 that's about 12 miles east of Fort Myers. Her four-year-old daughter Nina was sound asleep in her room.

Suddenly the 27-year-old single mom heard the unmistakable pop of gunfire. It was close, too close.

South Florida grow houses: The number of marijuana-growing operations in each county busted during 2006-2007
South Florida grow houses: The number of marijuana-growing operations in each county busted during 2006-2007

Peeking through the curtain of her front window, she saw muzzle flashes and human silhouettes moving across the front yard of a house one block from her one-acre lot. She picked up the phone and dialed 911.

Betty: I'd like to report gunshots.

Operator: How many did you hear?

Betty: Probably like six.

Operator: Where are they coming from?

Betty: I can hear them now. They are going off again.

Operator: You don't see anyone with a gun?

Betty: No, there are no street lights. It is pitch-black.

Operator: Okay, we're on our way. Would you like us to call you when the officers get there?

Betty: Yeah, please, I would like to know what is going on.

Thirty shots sounded before police arrived 10 minutes later. The hail of bullets roused Nina from her slumber. "I could even hear them reloading," Betty says in a tender yet serious voice.

Florida Grow Houses

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Betty has lived in lazy southwest Florida all of her life. She is used to quiet evenings. She never imagined she'd witness a shootout just a stone's throw from her doorstep. "Not in a million years," she says. "It was so scary. I grabbed my daughter and we locked ourselves in one of my bathrooms."

Though she was stricken with fear, Betty didn't let on that anything was wrong. "I didn't tell Nina," Betty explains. "We just played makeup and did each other's hair."

When Lee County deputies Scott Reaves and Nick Vistunas arrived, sirens wailing, they shined a spotlight at the home a block away from Betty's. They spotted a husky Hispanic man with close-cropped brown hair and steely brown eyes standing next to a white Mercedes.

He raised a pistol and unloaded several rounds.

The policemen ducked for cover and returned fire. Reaves grabbed a microphone and, through a car-mounted speaker, ordered the man to drop his weapon.

Instead the shooter continued his assault. The cops responded in kind and radioed for backup.

From her bathroom, Betty heard more police cars pulling up and a helicopter hovering overhead. Frantic, she called the Lee County Sheriff's substation. "They assured me they would send someone over to my house to keep a watch on us," she says.

Soon two uniformed officers with rifles knocked on Betty's door. "They let me know they had secured my car and would be out front until the whole thing was over," she remembers. "They were out there until a quarter to one in the morning."

After the gunslinger dropped his weapon, Reaves and Vistunas took him into custody. He was soon identified as a 44-year-old Cuban man from Miami named Carlos Ulloa. The deputies also detained Ulloa's wife Judith, who had been in the Benz during the gunfight.

Officers soon turned up dozens of shotgun shells in the front yard and discovered the front door and garage door were riddled with shotgun blasts and bullet holes.

An hour later, Reaves heard rustling in a wooded area across the street, and a police dog named Blade apprehended three more Cuban-born suspects: 45-year-old Deosdado Lezcano, his 43-year-old girlfriend Mabel Veliz, and their son Diosledy Lezcano-Veliz, age 23.

Finally deputies uncovered the reason behind Ulloa's shooting spree. They followed a bloody trail inside the house from the kitchen to the master bedroom, where they found a bushy marijuana plant. After sweeping the rest of the residence, cops turned up 49 more plants, a hydroponic irrigation system, lighting equipment, cooling fans, and power converters. According to Lee County Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Larry King, the plants had a street value of $195,000.

It seemed a pot deal had gone bad.

The scene in Lehigh Acres was only the most recent in a series of huge pot busts that have moved Florida into second place behind only California in the burgeoning outlaw business of marijuana grow houses. Last year authorities confiscated 37,311 plants from 511 indoor sites in the Sunshine State, according to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement report released in March.

In Miami-Dade County, pot manufacturing is a blooming business in which even Little League coaches are getting in on the action. On March 23, cops arrested 35-year-old Manuel Ojeda and 41-year-old Jorge Perez on marijuana trafficking charges. According to their arrest affidavits, the pair — who coached baseball to six- and seven-year-olds at Tamiami Park — rented two condos in the Hammocks neighborhood of unincorporated Southwest Miami-Dade and converted them into grow houses. Investigators found 148 plants.

Moreover, as the heat has grown locally, Miami Cubans, the same demographic group that made the Magic City a cocaine mecca in the Eighties, have set up marijuana grow houses in thinly populated counties to the north. In some cases, they have used the proceeds to pay off smugglers who helped them come to the United States. In Charlotte County, which includes sleepy towns like Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, deputies shut down only three grow houses in 2006. This year police have busted four times as many labs. "They all follow similar patterns," says Charlotte County Sheriff's spokesman Robert Carpenter. "Everyone busted here have been Cuban nationals."

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