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The numbers have particularly risen in tranquil locales along the Interstate 75 corridor, such as Cape Coral, Lehigh Acres, Golden Gate Estates, Punta Gorda, North Port, Port Charlotte, Lakeland, and Avon Park, where undercover narcotics detectives, at times working alongside DEA agents, are finding at least one grow house almost every day.
One factor in these areas' popularity is affordable housing, Benton says. While a three-bedroom home in Miami sells for about $350,000 to $400,000, a similar place in Lehigh Acres or North Port can cost less than $200,000. That leaves plenty of cash for equipment. "They are some of the most technically accomplished electricians and plumbers out there," says Charlotte County Sheriff's spokesman Robert Carpenter. "They set up some of the most intricate and elaborate lighting and irrigation systems you can imagine. They also destroy the inside of the houses, completely gut them."
The migration north is obvious in places like Highlands County, where Benton works and vast citrus groves and cattle ranches make it easy for traffickers to hide illegal activities. Authorities have raided 49 grow houses in the past year; they've arrested 64 people and seized more than 2800 plants. As in Charlotte County, that's a huge increase. "They are stealing power before it gets to the meter to avoid detection," Benton explains.
The Highlands sheriff adds that the growers produce a "mother" plant they use for cloning so they can harvest four to five times per year. "Except for one small living area for a caretaker, the entire house is used for growing marijuana," she says. "In some cases we have arrested the homeowners. When you look at some of their histories, you will find that they may have purchased a $350,000 house on the waterway, yet they haven't had a job for five years and don't have any proof of income."
So far she believes only low-level caretakers have been nailed. She doesn't have the manpower to nab the big guys. Simply breaking down a grow house stretches her force thin. "One grow house takes about four hours and 10 people to dismantle," she explains. "That's 40 man hours per grow house."
And storing all confiscated equipment has become a problem. "We had to move our plane out of the hangar and use it for evidence storage," Benton says. "We had to rent five semi-trailer-size containers, and we had to use a huge garage normally used by our crime scene guys."
It's shortly after 11:00 a.m. on October 7 in the driveway of 1008 Cortez Ave. in Lehigh Acres — 10 miles from Betty's home. The beige ranch-style house is located in a remote part of northeastern Lee County, about 125 miles from Miami. Out here the trees and shrubs still outnumber the houses. And parcels of land are cheap. An empty half-acre lot next door to 1008 Cortez is advertised for $69,000.
Despite the presence of a dark green Pontiac Sunfire and two bicycles in the driveway, no one lives in this house. That's because this past April 18, undercover agents from the Florida Highway Patrol and the DEA arrested owner Eddy Jaime Millan of Miami on a federal felony charge of possessing more than 100 marijuana plants with the intent to distribute.
According to Millan's arrest affidavit, the grow house eradicators received a tip from a Miami DEA agent that morning, so the team went to the house on Cortez Avenue and knocked on the door. When Millan opened, the agents detected the potent odor of weed and asked about it. He replied in Spanish that there was "no marijuana" there and then refused to allow them to enter.
At 4:35 p.m., the investigators returned with a search warrant and found 64 maturing marijuana plants in the garage and a large black garbage bag containing the discarded roots of 72 plants. Another black bag located in the bathroom held 24 roots. Millan was apparently setting up his second bedroom to grow more. A 9mm Glock handgun was stashed under the pillow in the master bedroom.
On July 2, Millan pleaded guilty to one felony count of marijuana trafficking. He forfeited his $275,000 three-bedroom residence and agreed to cooperate with the government. Millan has not been sentenced, but could avoid a five-year prison term if his information yields more arrests, according to his plea agreement.
Three months after the guilty plea, New Times visited the house on Cortez Avenue. The gate to the back yard was open and anyone could walk in. The screened-in pool was a murky, mossy dark green and inhabited by thousands of tadpoles. An open glass door led into the still-furnished master bedroom, where empty Corona beer bottles and cigarette butts littered the floor near a black lacquer nightstand. Crumpled bed sheets and a photograph of a half-naked young woman lay on a queen-size mattress.
The garage and the bedroom where agents had apparently found the marijuana and grow equipment were in far worse shape. The garage floor was covered in dry soil and twigs. The sheetrock Millan had used to create a barrier between the garage door and his grow room had been torn out. More than a dozen metal light covers hung twisted and broken from the ceiling or lay on the floor. In the kitchen, a hard loaf of half-eaten Cuban bread sat on the countertop. On the refrigerator door hung a picture of a flower hand-drawn in pink and purple ink. In the middle was a message: "Para Eddy." (For Eddy.)