Feds Bust Massive Marijuana Grow House Network, Arrest 13 on Drug and Murder Charges

Federal prosecutors announced today the arrest of 13 men and women for their involvement in a massive network of marijuana grow houses in Miami.

Feds say that the network was run by baby-faced con Gilberto Santiesteban Jr. and three of his brothers. According to several indictments, the family operated grow houses across South Miami from 2004 until the present and paid dozens of "caretakers" to watch over the illegal crops. Prosecutors claim the pot ring was responsible for at least 1,146 marijuana plants.

But the dirty business also led to murder, Feds argue. Keep reading for details on the incredible story involving revenge killings, fake cops, hidden drug rooms, and several moments in which authorities blew their chance at stopping the scheme.

Feds unsealed indictments against the 13 in custody plus three suspects still at large following a Tuesday morning raid in Glenville, New York.

Gilberto Santiesteban Jr. was one of the three suspects nabbed during the FBI raid. According to court documents, the 33-year-old had fled to Mexico in January of 2010 after learning that his Miami drug ring was being investigated. But October or November of that year, he paid a coyote to smuggle him back into the country.

He and two others are charged with the June 28, 2009 murder of Fidel Ruz Moreno, who they suspected of stealing marijuana plants from one of their grow houses three days earlier.

According to an indictment, Gilberto Santiesteban Jr., his brother Derrick, and two others ambushed Moreno as he was driving his Chevy in southwest Miami-Dade. They allegedly blocked his car at a stop sign, pulled him from his car, and drove away with him. Then they shot him and dumped his body in South Miami Heights.

The Santiestebans allegedly grew and sold millions of dollars worth of pot, often selling nearly $200,000 worth at a single time. After Moreno's murder, one brother fled to a log cabin in Monticello, New York. Another lived in a house in the Hamptons. They owned dozens of houses around Miami-Dade county, but listed them under the names of lesser-known accomplices, prosecutors say.

One of their main grow houses was nicknamed "The Hedge House," or "La Finca" ("farm" or "country estate" in Spanish). It was located at 19160 SW 132nd Avenue and, true to its name, is surrounded by high hedges. A "Beware of Dogs" sign sits on the gate.

Despite the security, however, the indictment shows that the Santiestebans were constantly at risk of getting robbed -- often by people they knew posing as police. At least once, would-be-robbers shopped up to a grow house only to run off after being recognized as former classmates.

But that's not the only way in which the drug network got lucky. Court documents show that authorities missed several opportunities to bust the gang.

On February 18, 2004, Miami-Dade Police arrived at Derrick Santiesteban's house. He promptly let them in, but the narcotics detectives failed to detect his secret marijuana grow room and left without making an arrest.

Four years later, Gilberto Santiesteban Jr. was driving to Miami after selling roughly 30 pounds of marijuana in New Jersey when he was pulled over by the Osceola County Sheriff's Office. The patrolman found electronic money counters and over $155,000 in cash in the trunk. Amazingly, however, no charges were filed.

After the incident, the Santiestebans took to hiding cash inside of spare tires in the trunk, the indictment says. Bags of marijuana were color-coded to indicate which of the four Santiesteban brothers they belonged to.

Follow Miami New Times on Facebook and Twitter @MiamiNewTimes. Follow this journalist on Twitter @MikeMillerMiami.

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