By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
The nearest neighbor, Felix Lopez, lives more than 30 yards away. His one-story abode has white-trimmed window frames and wood exterior walls painted in a North Carolina blue hue. His property sits on a half-acre lot, where the 56-year-old Puerto Rican paving contractor cultivates Spanish yams, papaya, and other exotic vegetables and fruits not named Cannabis sativa.
The heavyset fellow with a thin black mustache and a skinny ponytail has been living at 1005 Cortez Ave. for the past 23 years. Lopez and his wife raised three children there. "When we got here, this was nothing but forest and swamp," Lopez recollects. "I cleared the land so I could build my house. People move out here to get away from crime and all that other city bullshit."
Shortly after 12:30 p.m., Lopez is drinking Michelob and listening to a mix of cumbia, salsa, and merengue on a portable tape player. The day Millan was arrested, "I came home from work and there were all these cars and police out there," Lopez says. "I didn't know anything about him other than he was with a young lady and two little girls."
Lopez says the family moved into the house at 1008 Cortez in June 2006. "I'd see him working on his car," he says. "But he never bothered or talked to me."
Pot growers often remain aloof. Sometimes they avoid big electric bills by disconnecting the wires to their electrical meters so they don't track electrical use. The risk: It's a tip-off for law enforcement.
Lopez says Millan is stupid for growing marijuana. "People think they can't get caught," he hisses. "In this country, the biggest mafia is the government. And when they want you, they will get you."
Ten miles from Millan's place, at the other end of a series of winding and sometimes unpaved roads, is 829 Aprile Ave., a tan house with a panoramic back-yard view of tall trees and bushy shrubs that stretches as far as the eye can see.
This past May 9, the same group of agents who nabbed Millan busted through the front door around 3:30 p.m. They found that, with the exception of the garage, the entire house was filled with 156 marijuana plants. But rather than rip them up immediately, they closed the door and left. One unmarked unit stayed behind, out of sight, to maintain surveillance.
The following day, around 1:00 p.m., the agents — part of a federal task force assigned to narcotics cases in southwest Florida — received word that a red Dodge pickup truck and a covered trailer were parked in the driveway. They hurried over and found Jovany Aleman Noriega and Pedro Chaviano-Poleo. Aleman, a 34-year-old Miami native, claimed the plants belonged to him and that Chaviano-Poleo and the homeowner — listed in public records as Robersy Poleo — knew nothing about his operation. On August 27, Aleman followed Millan's lead and pleaded guilty to one felony count of trafficking marijuana. He agreed to cooperate with authorities for a more lenient punishment.
Like Millan, Aleman has not yet been sentenced. And his house, like Millan's on Cortez Avenue, was ransacked by the task force. Agents punched a huge hole through a dry-wall partition that closed off the living room from the front door. Throughout the house are overturned pots, soil, and broken platforms used to stack the plants in rows. An air-conditioning wall unit rigged to the ceiling of one room is bashed in. Pieces of insulated ductwork and snakelike wiring litter the floor.
Aleman's only neighbors live in a three-bedroom light gray house across the street. On a recent day, their open garage door exposes an expensive model train set. Inside, Kim and Dennis Pierzina are watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play the Indianapolis Colts. The couple say they moved into the home last November. She's from Maine. He's a Wisconsin native.
The grow house was originally occupied by a Hispanic guy with a small gray pickup truck. "He usually kept to himself," Dennis says. "The only time we spoke is when his cat ran into our yard, and I gave it back to him."
Kim remembers she sometimes smelled a strong odor when tending to her small back-yard garden. She later learned it was from a potent hydroponic marijuana strain known as skunk. "But we live in the country, so I just thought it was an actual skunk," she says. "Now that I think about it, I never saw him take care of his lawn either."
When that man left in April, the Pierzinas noticed that Aleman began to visit the house, stopping by once or twice a week. "He'd check the mailbox and then go inside," Dennis says. "But it's not like we'd see him walking out the door with a bunch of marijuana."
The Pierzinas watched the DEA task force burst into 829 Aprile. "There were all these agents sitting outside the house for three to four hours," Kim recalls. "I guess they were waiting for the warrant. They had a drug-sniffing German shepherd who was just going crazy."
When he saw agents coming out of the house carrying loads of marijuana, Dennis realized his neighbor was a talented gardener. "Those plants looked very healthy," he says.