The murder of Stevie Febonio: South Florida's marijuana grow houses can be a deadly business

On July 12, 2007, Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Timothy Boyle was parked outside a South Florida hydroponic supply business when a green Ford Mustang pulled into the parking lot. Twenty-four-year-old Justin Jones got out of the car and went inside. When he came out, Jones carried a long white box. Boyle took down the Mustang's license plate number, went back to the office, and subpoenaed Florida Power & Light to find out if Jones was a subscriber. Boyle learned that Jones paid the electric bill at a half-million-dollar Parkland house in a gated Broward community called Heron Bay. The house was leased in the name of Jose Alfaro. It was likely, Boyle figured, that Jones was buying lighting and chemical supplies for a marijuana grow house.

Boyle kept an eye on Jones for the rest of the summer. He watched him make more trips to the hydroponic store. He waited for Jones to put trash outside his house on pick-up days, but whatever garbage Jones was accumulating, it wasn't going out to the curb. On the last day of August, Boyle and Broward Sheriff's Office Det. Dustin Thompson used a drug detection dog named Boomer to sniff around the outside of the house. Boomer indicated he smelled pot on the south side of the house. Thompson and Boyle smelled it too.

Then, on September 5, Boyle spotted a heavy-duty black plastic bag bound with electrical tape by the curb in front of the house next door. Boyle knew that if Jones was running a marijuana grow house, he was either going to throw his trash in a dumpster or try to pawn it off on a neighbor. So Boyle snatched the bag. According to a probable-cause affidavit he filed later, when he opened it, he found marijuana clippings and bills in Jones's name. A crumpled note warned that the grow house was being watched by the cops. A scrap of paper listed hydroponic equipment, a feeding schedule, and cultivation instructions. For a DEA agent, it didn't get much better.

Stevie Febonio with his father, Edwin, in happier times.
Photo courtesy of the Febonio family
Stevie Febonio with his father, Edwin, in happier times.
Many called Stevie their "best friend."
Photo courtesy of the Febonia family
Many called Stevie their "best friend."

But there was something else inside that Mediterranean-style Heron Bay bungalow that Special Agent Timothy Boyle couldn't have imagined. A few days before, Jones had helped someone move a four-by-four-foot freezer into the garage. The freezer was belted closed, and Jones had been told it was full of "deer meat." But inside the freezer, wrapped in a sheet and black tarp and bound by duct tape, was the body of 45-year-old Stevie Febonio.

It would be two years before Febonio's partially decomposed corpse would be discovered inside that freezer, and by that time, it had been moved again and again, across two counties. The search for his body and his killer would occupy a half-dozen agencies. It would also become a full-time affair for Febonio's father, himself a retired police officer.

The investigation would draw into its net a bizarre cast of characters: small-time hoodlums, drug dealers, police informants, unsuspecting or partially complicit parents, stubbornly loyal girlfriends, and a few not-so-loyal exes, most of them involved in the lucrative underground business of growing and selling marijuana in South Florida.

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Peabody, Massachusetts, in the North Shore area outside Boston, was a rough place to grow up in the mid-'70s. The neighborhood where Stevie Febonio and his younger brother, Bryan, lived with father Edwin and mother Margaret was working-class, populated by Irish and Italian Catholics who attended the nearby St. Ann's Church for Sunday Mass. Friends of Stevie's and Bryan's from Brown Elementary and Peabody Veterans Memorial High remember Eddie and Margaret's house as their home away from home, a place of noisy family dinners where jovial arguments would erupt until Eddie banged his fist on the table and told them to knock it off. Margaret was a second mother to many of the boys; she gave them advice about girls, soothing their broken hearts and bruised egos. Stevie's father — his friends called him "Elfie" — was a well-liked inspector on the Peabody Police force.

One of Stevie's best friends was Michael Rose; they met when their two brothers got into a schoolyard dustup. "Mr. and Mrs. Febonio were more like my parents than my own parents were," Rose remembers. "They were beautiful people."

The Febonio boys grew up tough, defending each other in fights, fiercely protective of their friends, rarely backing down from a challenge. Rose, who says Stevie was his best friend, can't talk about Febonio now without weeping. "Stevie was a tough kid," Rose says. And he grew up to be "an unbelievably powerful person." At five-foot-nine and 200 pounds, the sandy-haired Febonio had strong Italian features: a well-muscled torso, a Roman nose, a closely cropped goatee. Says Rose: "He wouldn't take shit from nobody. If you were his friend, he would defend you. He was always helping you out. He always worked, he had the nicest clothes, the nicest cars, the most beautiful girlfriends."

But "Peabody was a crazy little town," Rose adds. "It was easy to hook up with the wrong person."

The Febonio brothers did just that, befriending petty criminals and police informants, becoming entangled with federal agents. In his early 30s, Stevie served almost seven years for trafficking cocaine; friends claim the DEA busted him during his first delivery. Bryan was convicted of assault and battery; as a felon, he later attempted to sell a Colt Python .357 to an undercover federal agent. Just last year, only recently out of prison, Bryan robbed a bank at gunpoint. Both young men struggled with addictions.

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