By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
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.
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.
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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."
Adds Susan Benton, sheriff of Highlands County in central Florida: "The state is growing a tremendous amount of marijuana. We are supplying the whole East Coast. It's all over the place, from the rural areas with five-acre tracts to regular subdivisions near kids and schools."
On a rainy Miami afternoon, a raspy-voiced Cuban-American in his late thirties named Santino tends to 13 six-foot-high potted marijuana plants in full bloom. He resembles a young James Caan — and shares the filmic mafioso's disdain for law enforcement. "The cops love saying that one plant equals a pound," Santino says mockingly. "That's a bunch of bullshit. They say that to justify their big budgets for taking us down. But I only count buds."
He pours half a teaspoon of Flora Nova liquid plant food and a teaspoon of a yellow powder he calls "cha-ching" into a gallon jug of water, and then repeats the procedure with two other jugs. The mixture turns a light greenish-brown. Then, with Don Burke-like finesse, he feeds his plants while explaining that three-quarters of one plant (i.e., the stem, the five-pointed fan leaves, and the roots) are worthless. "If I can squeeze two pounds from this batch, I'm good," he says. "It also helps that I always get the best bud available."
Two high-pressure, 1000-watt Hydrolux sodium bulbs drown the high-grade herbage in sizzling ultraviolet light. The room has a golden glow. Like the lights discovered in the Lehigh bust, the bulbs are connected to two portable electric ballasts that produce a low-pitch hum. A large square piece of sheetrock covers the only window in the room. The entire setup, from the grow lights to the enhanced plant food, costs less than $1500, Santino explains. His monthly electric bill averages about $300, enough to fly under the radar of nosy utility workers and undercover police surveillance.
Santino's relatively small operation is confined to a tiny bedroom inside a townhouse somewhere on the western fringe of Miami-Dade. Santino doesn't own the property. He doesn't live there either. But his pot-smoking buddies do. Tom and wife Nora, who have no children, rent the room to Santino. "They get free herb and a share of the profits," he says. "It's the perfect setup because they have lived here for years, and the neighbors know who they are. To everyone around here, they are just another happily married couple."
Tom is an affable yet reserved fellow with sleepy hazel eyes. "He's the brains," Tom says sheepishly. "I'm just the caretaker." Santino and Tom were born and raised in Miami. They attended the same private elementary school but went to different high schools. Neither graduated from college. They maintained a close friendship fueled by their connoisseurs' love for good pot. Two years ago they traveled to Amsterdam for the annual High Times Cannabis Cup, which attracts pot farmers from all over the globe to compete for the best-tasting bud.
In many ways, Santino is like the male version of Nancy Botwin, the suburbanite-mom-turned-pot-dealer on Showtime's TV series Weeds. He divorced his wife four years ago and shares custody of his 10-year-old daughter and six-year-old son (whom he doesn't allow near the marijuana) with his ex. He lives in a gated residential community in Northeast Miami-Dade and drives a late-model Lexus sports sedan.
Like most pot growers and dealers, Santino got into the business after purchasing weed not only for himself but also for friends and acquaintances. "When you're buying bud at retail cost, there is not much profit margin there," Santino says. "So here I was buying quarter-pounds, half-pounds that I'd split up with other people. Yet I was the one assuming all the risk for a very little reward."
On the retail market he can sell an ounce of homegrown bud for $400 to $500. Half an ounce goes for $200 to $250. "The only way to make money is to grow your own and cut out the middleman," he says.
Prices have gone up 20 percent since the recent crackdown, he says. "It's getting expensive."
The Highlands County Sheriff's Office is one of the smallest police departments in the state, employing 95 officers to protect 87,336 residents spread out over 1029 square miles in the center of Florida's peninsula. Despite its size, the department is one of the state's most progressive, led by Florida's first elected woman sheriff: Susan Benton, a 58-year-old Miami native and Democrat who won the seat in 2004.
The Monsignor Pace High School grad walked the cop beat in Miami-Dade County for five years before relocating 166 miles north to Sebring, the most populous city in Highlands. There, after a seven-year career sidetrack as a political aide and state protection officer, she rose through the ranks from deputy to lieutenant. Today Benton has become one of the most informed top law enforcement officials on Florida's grow house industry.
"It has the characteristics of major organized crime," Benton says. "Just about every case, we have seen Hispanics of Cuban descent from the Miami/Hialeah area. Many of them seem to know each other."
There is no doubt that indoor marijuana manufacturing is on the rise in Florida. In Miami-Dade, cops last year arrested 492 suspected farmers and seized 15,749 pot plants, the most of all counties. Broward produced the third-largest crop share at 3021 plants, and Palm Beach was fourth with 1938 plants. (St. Lucie County was number two.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
The proposal would step up penalties against suspects with children present at a grow house and allow cops to slap trafficking charges on people caught growing 25 or more plants. Under current state law, growers can be charged as traffickers only if they have more than 300.
McCollum says his plan will make it easier to send pot growers to prison. "The current law was designed when we had people growing marijuana in open fields," he says. "Today growers try very hard to keep the number under 100 but are producing a much more potent and lethal strain of marijuana." The level of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in pot, is higher, he says. "Back when we were thinking about Woodstock, THC levels in marijuana were only four percent," he says. "Today plants being grown hydroponically have 20 percent THC, in some cases 30 percent. This is a highly toxic chemical substance."
McCollum's bill has caught the attention of NORML, the nation's leading advocacy group for ending prohibition against marijuana. "McCollum's years in Congress are marked with some of the most ridiculous, unconstitutional, undemocratic, nonsensical approaches to drug policy," NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre says by phone from Washington, D.C. "Unfortunately he is now your attorney general."
St. Pierre says law enforcement officials are only now catching up to a cash crop phenomenon that has been going on for years. "It's not because there is all of sudden a huge explosion of growing indoors down there," he says. "Marijuana is not just the number one cash crop in Florida, but the entire country."
The weed advocate argues that increasing criminal penalties is not going to diminish marijuana use. "This bill is not going to have any real impact except in the pockets of Florida taxpayers," St. Pierre says. "It's just going to result in more people going to jail and the residents of Florida footing the bill."