TAMPA — They set up shop in luxury homes and gated communities, filling bedrooms with fertilizer, high-tech lighting and automated irrigation systems. In the privacy of rented residences, drug traffickers prepared to make millions.
Then deputies got wind of it. On Thursday, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office announced its largest marijuana bust in history, arresting 70 people and seizing 1.5 tons of marijuana over the course of a six-month sting. An estimated $13-million in drugs was taken off the street, Sheriff David Gee said.
Gee promised additional arrests of at least nine people.
"This is organized crime," he said. "They're doing it in neighborhoods right here in suburbia, and they're hiding in plain sight."
That wasn't always the case. In recent years, authorities in Hillsborough have raided perhaps a half-dozen grow houses annually, deputies said. Yet since February, detectives have found no fewer than 62 area homes that had been converted into drug factories.
Some of the Hillsborough grow houses worked in concert with others, but in general, the operations were run independently.
U.S. Attorney Robert E. O'Neill said he has seen grow houses proliferate elsewhere in Florida, too. They were uncovered last year in 45 of Florida's 67 counties, and the nearly 75,000 plants seized were twice the number found the year before, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
On Wednesday, Hernando authorities arrested two people after deputies found 97 marijuana plants growing in a garage behind a tall fence.
"If you talk to all the different sheriffs, this is one of the prime drug movements going on right now," said O'Neill, who promised some of those arrested will face federal charges. Suspects will also face harsher penalties in state courts because of laws enacted in June to stem indoor growing.
Nationally, too, drug traffickers have moved operations indoors to avoid detection from law enforcement and make more money by producing drugs with higher potencies, said Charles F. Miller, a spokesman for the Department of Justice's National Drug Intelligence Center.
On Thursday, Gee and his deputies turned a sheriff's conference room into an arboretum, replete with scores of marijuana plants, drug paraphernalia and even a full-scale replica of a typical room inside a grow house.
"You almost have to be an electrician to figure this out," said Detective Ronnie Cooper. "It's an extremely sophisticated operation."
In addition to more than 5,800 marijuana plants, deputies said, the raids netted $1.6-million in growing equipment, including industrial duct work, automated irrigation systems and 1,000-watt light fixtures that Cooper said use as much power apiece as the average family home.
In some of the houses, deputies said they found plants as large as 7 or 8 feet tall. Black mold often covered walls and ceilings, the result of the high humidity necessary for growing. Investigators had to wear masks to enter.
In many cases, suspects dabbled as amateur electricians and tapped into power lines to avoid paying what would be four-figure electrical bills. The Sheriff's Office estimated the amount of power theft from the grow houses at as much as $1-million this year alone.
Deputies said growers find the fetid mold and risk of electrocution a small price to pay considering the potential profit. One house raided recently had produced $800,000 worth of marijuana, said J.D. Callaway, a sheriff's spokesman.
Gee would not provide details on how detectives uncovered them, but grow houses were found all over the county, from Carrollwood to Brandon, Town 'N Country to Riverview. Few of the homes had anyone living in them, but eight vehicles, 13 guns and $42,000 in cash were seized.
Some homes were worth half a million and some were in gated communities. Few looked like anything other than a typical suburban residence.
"It could be in any neighborhood. It's going on everywhere," Gee said. "Most of these communities we went into didn't have any idea this was going on."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Thomas Kaplan can be reached at (813) 226-3404 or [email protected]