Residential Homes Fertile Ground for Pot Growers

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, Mar 18, 2001.

  1. By Peter Franceschina
    Source: News-Press

    It's clandestine, easy to do, extremely profitable and might even be going on in your neighborhood. Marijuana growers have moved indoors, outfitting homes in bedroom communities with sophisticated hydroponic equipment and lights to cultivate a highly profitable illegal trade.
    Southwest Florida saw a spate of indoor marijuana busts this year - five since January in Lee and Collier counties.

    Four were commercial operations with hundreds of potent plants worth big money.

    “We've had a few, haven't we?” said Lee County sheriff's Capt. Randy Collmer. “Isn't it wild?”

    A fire last weekend in Lehigh Acres led to the latest discovery - 503 plants in a home converted into a greenhouse. It was Lehigh Acres' second fire since January in a grow house.

    Neighbors on the quiet street say there was nothing suspicious about the home at 513 Hibiscus Ave., which sported Christmas lights over the holidays and is surrounded on three sides by thick palmetto shrubs.

    “That's a perfect area. There is no house in back. There is no house between him and me. They figured it out exactly,” said one neighbor, who didn't want to be identified. “Professionals. Hired professionals, perhaps.”

    The home's yard was neatly cut, bushes trimmed. A jacuzzi on the back porch was clean, as if used regularly. In the living room was a couch, a stereo, CDs, a television, lamps, end tables.

    “The house was set up just for growing marijuana. The rest of the home was set up as a front to make it look like a regular, single-family home,” said Lee County sheriff's narcotics Lt. Jeff Holland.

    “You could have walked around this home 50 times, and you would never know it. If you looked in the front window. It looked like a normal home,” said Henry MacArty, assistant fire chief for the Lehigh Acres Fire Department. “From the outside, it looked normal to the world.”

    In the three bedrooms and garage, someone set up sophisticated grow rooms.

    The grower tapped into a power pole in the back yard, underground, and ran power to the house that bypassed the meter - high energy consumption is one of the tipoffs that a home is being used to grow marijuana.

    Electric panels were set up inside to power the high intensity lights and the water and fertilization systems.

    The garage door couldn't even be opened because of the insulation panels installed in the garage.

    For all the highly technical electrical modifications, it was a cell phone charger that alerted authorities to the situation.

    Sitting on the kitchen counter, MacArty says it malfunctioned, sparking a blaze.

    It burned undetected until the heat blew out the windows.

    Neighbors heard an explosion and called 911, and firefighters discovered the marijuana operation.

    A Miami man bought the home a year ago on March 9 for $107,900, according to property records.

    One neighbor says he never saw anyone at the home, but he often saw different cars there.

    The homeowner, Ernesto Herrera, says he couldn't possibly know what his renters were up to on the opposite coast.

    “I don't know what happens there because I live in Miami,” he said. “I rent the house, and I don't know the people who live there. I don't know anything.”

    There has been more traffic on the street since the house burned.

    Curiosity seekers drive by to look at the marijuana house.

    “The traffic here before this, two cars a day. Now, 20 cars a day,” said a neighbor.

    Pot easy crop to grow:

    Sheriff's officials estimate the marijuana would be worth about $500,000.

    Hydroponically grown marijuana is more potent than crops grown in the ground and fetch higher prices.

    “It's extremely potent. You can see in the buds the THC,” Collmer said, referring to the psychoactive component of marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol. “I wish I could grow my plants at my house as well as these guys were growing these plants. It's unbelievable.”

    Mature plants were in the home, about six feet tall.

    “These were not far from harvest. He had over 300 seedlings in there to start the next crop,” Holland said. “It's much stronger than marijuana grown outside.”

    Sheriff's agents have suspects, but they're not talking about them publicly.

    By growing the marijuana indoors, investigators say the cultivators can control every aspect of the operation.

    “It's better fertilized, it's better taken care of. You don't want too much humidity. You can control the air from the inside. You have special grow lights,” Collmer said. “The hydroponics set up on these are unbelievable. We don't have any places here where you can buy this equipment. You can buy this stuff on the East Coast.”

    Or on the Internet.

    Or in magazines.

    Growers also can control the time it takes for the plants to mature, accelerating their growth cycle so that three or four harvests a year are possible.

    “My guess would be harvests every three or four months,” Collmer said.

    With sophisticated systems, the crops don't require much tending.

    Evidence at the Hibiscus Avenue home indicated someone was staying there, at least occasionally.

    “Everything is on timers, so it pretty much works itself,” Collmer said. “We got one person who is maybe staying there for the weekend. Do his weeding, I guess you could say.”

    Thomas Scarantino, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Fort Myers office, says indoor growing operations come in all sizes.

    “They are relatively simple to operate. Somebody told me it's kind of like growing tomatoes - once you know how to do it, they're easy to set up,” he said. “We've seen everything from a hundred plants to five or six hundred plants. They're varying in size and sophistication.”

    If an operation is big enough, federal prosecutors take over the case. Growing 1,000 or more marijuana plants carries a federal minimum mandatory 10 years in prison.

    Investment returns high:

    While the equipment needed to grow marijuana can be expensive, as much as $20,000, the growers reap a big return.

    “We haven't found anything in a gated community yet, but it wouldn't surprise me. It would be easy enough to do,” said Collier County sheriff's narcotics Lt. Nelson Shadrick, who participated in a raid on a house with 89 plants in Golden Gate Estates last month.

    Collier sheriff's officials have uncovered three such grow houses in the past year.

    “We've definitely seen an increase in the last couple of years,” he said. “They're very similar to what the East Coast has had for a much longer period. It's cropping up here with the population growing like it is here.”

    Scarantino recalls a grow operation in Naples a few years ago in a large storage shed where the owner built hidden, special rooms.

    Agents climbed a ladder and went across the roof of the shed, and then climbed down a ladder into the rooms.

    “Very, very sophisticated. A lot of work went into it,” he said.

    While indoor crops tend to be smaller than their outdoor counterparts, growers earn more.

    Narcotics agents say a single grow house could reap hundreds of thousands of dollars for its operator in a year. There's big money to be made even if the grower has to buy a house.

    “It's very lucrative,” said Holland. “You can drop a hundred thousand dollars, and you could make it back with your first crop no problem.”

    The big question is, “how many grow houses are out there?

    “No one really knows,” Shadrick said.

    “I suspect there are more out there. Is it something that's popular? Sure it is. It is something that is increasingly popular with people because it's easy to do,” Scarantino said.

    MacArty believes more grow houses are in his community.

    “I would bet there is a lot more of them. Since January, we didn't find the only two in town by accident. No chance,” he said.

    “They can move an operation every year, year and a half, and never be caught. They can pay $100,000 for a house and use it for a year or two and walk away. They've made so much money they don't feel it.”

    Shadrick agrees there likely are more grow houses in the area.

    “There are more of them out there, and we are learning a lot more from the places we seize,” he said. “We'll see more arrests, more seizures and more houses. It's not rampant, but you're going to see more and more of it.”

    One reason growers have moved indoors is because narcotics agents were so successful in spotting outdoor crops from the air and destroying them.

    “I don't know of any large, outdoor marijuana grows in our area,” Scarantino said. “If you're indoors, you're protected by the Fourth Amendment.”

    That constitutional amendment protects people from unreasonable search and seizure. One of law enforcement's most effective tools against indoor grow operations is thermal imaging, using infrared technology to detect unusually warm homes or the heat from powerful grow lights.

    Whether that technology constitutes an illegal search is now being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of an Oregon man who was arrested after thermal imaging detected three grow lights through his roof.

    Shadrick says indoor growing has supplanted outdoor growing.

    “I don't think they're going to give up,” he said. “They're going to adapt and survive.”

    Recent marijuana cases:

    March 11: A fire broke out in a home at 513 Hibiscus Ave. in Lehigh Acres. Authorities discovered 503 marijuana plants. The grower bypassed the electric meter by tapping into a power pole in the back yard to power lights and a sophisticated air- cooling system. The fire was sparked in the kitchen by a cell phone charger, and no one was at the home at the time, according to firefighters. The marijuana was worth an estimated $500,000 on the street. The investigation continues.

    Feb. 22: Authorities raided a south Fort Myers barn they say doubled as a sophisticated indoor marijuana farm. Michael Maree, 43, told arresting officers he grew almost 300 plants to alleviate people's pain, according to sheriff's officials. The marijuana was worth an estimated $300,000. Maree is charged with marijuana cultivation, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

    Feb. 14: Collier sheriff's deputies following their noses discovered 89 marijuana plants worth an estimated $89,000 growing inside a Golden Gate Estates house. Deputies arrested Dioneli Sendra, 23, of 330 16th St. Southeast. A converted power system bypassed the electric meter and supplied electricity to grow lamps and air conditioning inside the garage.

    Jan. 21: Frank R. Kirchner, 34, of Cape Coral, was accused of growing nine marijuana plants in his bedroom. Police went to his mother's home, where she ran a day care, to arrest Kirchner's son on a burglary charge and they found marijuana seeds in the boy's bedroom, reports said. The day-care license has been revoked.

    Jan. 13: A small fire in a Lehigh Acres home exposed a sophisticated nursery worth more than $200,000, sheriff's officials said. Arnaldo Machin, 37, was charged with cultivating hundreds of mature plants in his isolated 3103 28th St. S.W. home. Lehigh firefighters were called to a bedroom fire but had to bust out a rear wall when they couldn't get to the locked bedroom from inside. They discovered the marijuana plants lined in rows with ceiling-mounted grow lamps, irrigation and pump systems and a converted power system that bypassed the electrical meter, reports stated. A grow light transformer sparked the blaze.

    Source: News-Press (FL)
    Author: Peter Franceschina
    Published: March 18, 2001
    Address: P.O. Box 10, Fort Myers, FL 33902
    Copyright: 2001 The News-Press
    Fax: (941) 334-0708
  2. I've sent "The Growbook" written by Mel Frank
    ,Ed Rosenthal to nearly 100 folks this year alone. :)

  3. Sounds kinda like they need to check out this Collmers house too. LOL
  4. Hey thanks for the good bit of reading there.Make me want to take a step back and look at my setup...How safe is it ?

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