Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

In-home drug bust is record

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]

In-home drug bust is record 08/07/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 11, 2008 3:16pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Candidate in East Hillsborough House primary didn't vote in primaries


    TAMPA — Personal voting histories show a sharp difference between Yvonne Fry and Lawrence McClure, the two candidates in the Republican special election primary Oct. 10 for East Hillsborough's District 58 state House seat.

    Yvonne Fry, Republican candidate for state House District 58, has voted in 34 elections at all levels since 1994. She likes to vote on election day, she said, and considers it a national holiday. [Courtesy of Yvonne Fry]
  2. Water and some food scarce as Puerto Rico emerges from storm


    SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Supermarkets are gradually re-opening in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico but the situation is far from normal and many customers are going home disappointed.

    People wait in line outside a grocery store to buy food that wouldn't spoil and that they could prepare without electricity, in San Juan, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. Most stores and restaurants remained closed Monday. Nearly all of Puerto Rico was without power or water five days after Hurricane Maria. [Associated Press]
  3. Tampa-based vXchnge secures $200M loan to expand operations


    TAMPA — Tampa-based vXchnge, which operates data centers in 14 metro areas, has secured a loan for roughly $200 million for "major expansions and enhancements."

    Tampa-based vXchnge, a data center provider, secured a $200 million loan. Pictured is CEO Keith Olsen. | [Courtesy of vXchnge]
  4. Steelers' Villanueva apologizes, says he didn't intend to stand alone during anthem (w/video)


    PITTSBURGH — Alejandro Villanueva just wanted to get a glimpse of the American flag, the symbol he wore on his military uniform during three tours in Afghanistan before beginning an unlikely journey from Army Ranger to the NFL.

    Alejandro Villanueva stands alone during the national anthem at Soldier Field in Chicago. [Associated Press]
  5. Allegiant flight makes emergency landing in California after smoke fills cabin


    FRESNO, Calif. — Smoke filled the cabin of an Allegiant Air jet after it landed at a California airport on Monday, forcing coughing passengers to cover their faces with shirts and firefighters to board the plane, authorities said.

    This frame from mobile phone video shows smoke inside an Allegiant Air jet after it landed at Fresno Yosemite International Airport in California's Central Valley, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. Smoke filled the cabin of an Allegiant Air jet after it landed at the airport on Monday, forcing coughing passengers to cover their faces with shirts and firefighters to board the plane, authorities said. Allegiant said no passengers or any of the six crew members were injured. [Estevan Moreno via AP]