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Pot-house Busts Continue To Grow

LdyLunatic

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Florida
25 Sep 2006



by Rachel Myers, rmyers@news-press.com,
Cape, Lehigh, Collier Raids Part Of Organized, Dangerous Trend

Perhaps it was how the neighbors always kept the shades drawn and garage doors closed.

Maybe it could have been the skunky smell that wafted through the air, or the fact that the house seemed somewhat abandoned altogether.

"I didn't know what it was exactly," Cape Coral resident Linda Barr said, "but I knew they were doing something they shouldn't be."

Last October police raided the house on Southeast 15th Street, busting two men for running an extensive marijuana cultivation operation where 103 plants valued at $250,000 were seized.

That was just one in a string of elaborate efforts, also known as grow houses, that authorities in Southwest Florida and beyond have broken up in the past year.

In the Cape, where the majority of Lee County busts have taken place, there have been 34 raids so far this year - 11 more than the total for 2005.

In Lehigh Acres, where Lee County sheriff's spokesman Angelo Vaughn said all of his department's recent busts have gone down, 14 grow houses have been found since January 2005.

Last year in Collier County, there were 35 busts - by far the highest in the past four years.

And just last week, officials in Port St. Lucie on Florida's east coast announced the breakup of a grow-house ring that included more than 50 houses and 4,000 pounds of the plant that yielded millions of dollars each harvest.

What Gives With The Growth?

"Drug operations tend to follow trends," Cape Coral Deputy Chief Rob Petrovich said. "Back in the 1980s and '90s, we saw a lot of acid ( LSD ) and crack cocaine. Now, one of the newest trends seems to be grow houses."

But it's not just the sale of the plant authorities are concerned about. Growers, they said, are becoming more organized - and more dangerous.

Police are finding weapons such as AK-47s and automatic rifles during pot house raids. In June, a shootout in Lehigh on Chambers Street was the result of what Vaughn called "a drug transaction that didn't go as planned."

Guns have been found in the past six or so stings the sheriff's office has worked in Lehigh, according to Sgt. John Haberman of the Lee County Sheriff's Office narcotics task force.

Growers typically arm themselves for protection against other dealers, he said, but the threat is enough to make authorities even more determined to attack the issue.

"This type of crime perpetuates other types of crime," Haberman said. "These particular groups are also involved in all kinds of theft and even human smuggling."

Lt. Nelson Shadrick of the Collier County Sheriff's Vice and Narcotics Unit said the problem also is with the kinds of people the drug trade attracts.

"You could have a situation where someone comes to rip off the wrong house, and they don't care whether there are innocent people there or not," he said.

In addition to increased crime, other problems that can result from having a grow house nearby include noxious and possibly poisonous fumes from mold or chemicals, as well as fires and electrocution caused by an inexperienced person trying to rewire circuits to steal energy.

Those arrested have tended to be transient residents, with many migrating from Miami and Fort Lauderdale in search of more affordable housing and locations that are more remote.

Shelly Flynn, spokeswoman for Fort Myers police, said the department has not had a bust there "for years" because housing in that city is denser, making it easier to spot strange activity.

But that's why growers have been attracted to Lehigh, the Cape and parts of Collier County, where certain stretches are not as developed as those in surrounding cities.

"They think they can move into this area where they might not have watchful neighbors," Haberman said.

More Sophisticated

But neighbors such as Linda Barr are becoming more common.

"Now that it's gotten out that we're seeing more and more of these, I think people are becoming more suspicious and more likely to report it," Haberman said.

Still, with technology and crime cells becoming highly sophisticated, the signs are starting to be difficult to recognize.

"Unfortunately, this isn't just the old guy sitting in his house growing a few plants for personal use anymore," Haberman said. "These are people who are well-connected and know what they're doing."

While Collier County has seen somewhat of a drop-off in activity this year - down to nine houses from 35 in 2005 - Shadrick said it could just be the operations are better hidden.

"We can't let our guard down on this," he said.

Money-Making Operations

Each operation needs anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 worth of equipment - all of which can be bought at a nearby home improvement store.

That cost is quickly offset, with each adult plant worth an estimated $1,000 and harvests rolling around about four times a year.

And the green stuff - the kind that doesn't grow on stems - is what it's all about.

"It's not a humanitarian effort," Petrovich said. "One of the ways to eliminate this trend is to eliminate their profit."

Prosecution A Priority

He said that's done by law enforcement following each tip and cracking down on the operations they do find.

Convictions for marijuana cultivation can land a person in prison for anywhere from five to 30 years, depending on how many plants are found and how much they weigh, according to Chere Avery, state attorney's office spokeswoman.

For the next fiscal year, Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, 2007, Cape Coral police requested an additional 40 officers. Although not solely for the purpose of cracking down on grow houses, Petrovich said more officers mean more hands on the pulse of what's going on in the city.

"In general," he said, "when our staffing is where we want it to be, we can be proactive instead of reactive to these types of issues."

Haberman said several grow houses have been found by observant deputies on patrol.

"There has definitely been an increase in these operations, but the recent upswing in arrests is partly us being more in tune to what's going on," he said.

His agency also has been working closely with electricians, mail carriers and any other professional groups that might come in regular contact with homes.

But police say vigilant residents help most.

Barr, a 16-year resident, said police did an "excellent" job in addressing her concerns.

"We don't want that stuff here," she said. "They may have thought they could get away with it, but they picked the wrong neighborhood.

[Sidebar]

WARNING SIGNS OF A GROW HOUSE

o Residents rarely appear to be at home and attend the house for brief periods of time. Despite this, radios or televisions may be left on all night, making it sound as if someone is there.

o Visitors behave strangely or visit at odd hours.

o Entry to the home is often made through the garage or side/back entrance to conceal activities.

o Windows are boarded or covered, preventing light from entering the house and concealing the activities inside.

o Equipment such as large fans, lights and plastic plant containers are carried into the home.

o Strange, skunk-like odors come from the house.

o Exterior appearance of the property is untidy.

o Warning signs such as "Beware of Dog" are posted in the windows or around the outside of the house.

- - Source: Niagara Regional Police Service

RECENT BUSTS

o July 18: After four months of investigation, Lee County sheriff's deputies served search warrants on two houses in Lehigh Acres and found 160 marijuana plants between operations at [address redacted], and [address redacted]. Four were arrested and charged with marijuana trafficking and attempted soliciting of marijuana sales. In April, deputies had confiscated other plants in connection with the same operation at [address redacted] All told, deputies seized 331 plants with an estimated street value of $350,000.

o July 7: Cape Coral police, along with two federal agencies, served a search warrant on three homes at [address redacted], [address redacted] and [address redacted] and found extensive marijuana cultivation operations in each. In all, detectives seized 228 marijuana plants with an estimated street value of more than $1 million. Three were arrested and charged with possession with intent to distribute.

o June 20: Sheriff's deputies found 73 marijuana plants, worth about $1,000 each, growing in a garage at [address redacted]. One man was arrested and charged with growing marijuana and owning marijuana- growing equipment.

o Feb. 25: Sheriff's deputies raided a house at[address redacted]. in Lehigh Acres, seizing 118 live marijuana plants with an estimated street value of $118,000. One man was arrested and charged with cultivating and trafficking marijuana.

o Feb. 17: After a three-month investigation, sheriff's deputies raided a house at [address redacted]. in Lehigh Acres, discovering 180 plants with an estimated value of $180,000 in the garage. One man was arrested.

o Feb. 10: Cape Coral police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration served a search warrant at [address redacted] and found 24 marijuana plants and elaborate air conditioning, lighting and irrigation systems. The estimated street value was more than $100,000. Two were charged with cultivation of marijuana and one also was charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon after five rifles and handguns were found in one of the bedrooms.

o Jan. 27: Police arrest one man after raiding a home at [address redacted] where they found 134 marijuana plants, valued at about $500,000. Because there were more than 100 plants found, the case was turned over to federal authorities.
 

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