Marijuana Goes Upstate

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

Millan's and Aleman's decisions to cooperate with authorities likely represented a breakthrough for law enforcement. In October the Lee County Sheriff's Office shut down 12 grow houses, confiscated more than 639 plants worth close to two million dollars, and arrested 17 suspected growers — among them the trio hiding in the bushes during the shootout near Betty's house.

Things are even hotter in the supposedly secluded environs of Charlotte County, just to the north.

At 16100 Forest Glen Ct., a two-story house approximately 200 miles northwest of Miami, 14 miles east of Punta Gorda, and 51 miles from Eddy Millan's and Jovanny Aleman's grow houses, three candles bearing the images of San Lazaro, Santa Barbara, and La Virgin de la Caridad are planted on a windowsill in a first-floor room. Next to them are several coins and moldy bananas, which are apparently an offering to the orishas — the spirit gods in the predominantly Cuban religion of Santería.

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

But the offerings apparently weren't enough to save Maria Corzo Vega's place this past July 19 from becoming Charlotte County's largest grow house bust. "There is so much heat down in Cape Coral and Lehigh Acres, they have come here to the boondocks," says sheriff's spokesman Robert Carpenter. "After all, we're just a hop, skip, and a jump away."

The house sits on a 10-acre lot in a ranch community known as Prairie West. When detectives knocked on the front door sometime after 1:00 p.m., they were greeted by Corzo Vega, a petite 37-year-old Cuban woman whose driver's license lists a Miami Lakes address. She told police she worked as a housekeeper.

Detectives found elaborate electrical, air-conditioning, water, and hydroponics systems branching out all over the house. The two-car garage had been split into two growing rooms. On the second floor, the master bedroom door had been blocked off and the walls removed to create one massive cultivation space. Cops seized 371 potted marijuana plants (a street value of $1.4 million).

Corzo was arrested and charged with two felonies of growing and trafficking marijuana. She awaits trial.

This past October 8, when New Times visited, the back porch screen door and sliding glass doors were open. The house reeked of mold and mildew. Wood floors were warped from water damage. Empty water bottles and used latex gloves lay on the kitchen countertops. Food, including a carton of eggs, a container of lima beans, and a jar of mayonnaise, rotted inside the dead refrigerator. Clothes and sneakers sat atop the washer and dryer. Sliced-up extension cords hung from the second-floor ceiling.

Ten miles west, at 5211 Black Jack Cir., is a ranch-style home where cops were less successful. They raided it August 19 after hearing it was a grow house disguised as a goat farm. To enter, they tore off the garage door and the front French doors. But it was too late. Although officers found two grow rooms inside the house and two more in the detached garage, the place was abandoned. There were 61 plants and two dozen gallon-size plastic zipper bags filled with hydro weed scattered around.

When New Times arrived, the doors were wide-open and the walls covered in black mold. The living room, which featured a red brick fireplace, was empty except for a large TV set in a corner. The garage still had insulation and plastic irrigation trays.

A half-mile down the road, Hans Reiniger and his family own the ranch at 5205 Black Jack. The bald 40-year-old with probing blue eyes and a stylish goatee says he was unaware of the grow houses until he saw them on the news. "Most of the neighbors keep to themselves," Reiniger says. "You really don't see anyone coming or going."

The presence of grow houses hasn't really alarmed him, he adds. "I'd rather have that than worry about someone ripping me off or burglarizing my house," Reiniger says. "I personally don't believe people should go to jail for marijuana."

It's a recent day in Miami-Dade. Santino is lounging behind the wheel of a late-model rental car idling in a parking lot. He has just returned from a weekend trip to Lehigh Acres, where he visited an "old pal." He sparks up a Marley-size spliff packed with what he calls el niño chronic. "Herb may be getting more expensive," he says while hacking. "But the shit is still fucking good."

Earlier this year, Santino's cousin got pinched for pot near Metrozoo. "They had four dozen agents out there," Santino grouses. "And all my cousin got was a misdemeanor ticket and two years' probation. What a fucking joke. What a waste of taxpayer money. We're just giving cops job security."

Indeed it's clear that the offensive against grow houses in Florida is taking place at a time when other states — like Alaska, Colorado, and Montana — are easing marijuana laws. This past June 21, the Highlands County Sheriff's Department, the DEA's Miami office, and the Florida Office of Drug Control hosted 150 law enforcement officials from all over the state at a grow house conference in Altamonte Springs. Earlier this month, state Attorney General Bill McCollum presented the Marijuana Grow House Eradication Act, which will be considered by state lawmakers during the 2008 legislative session.

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