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Marijuana grow house raids

Marijuana grow houses surprise neighborhoods

BRANDON — Neighbors couldn't help but stare as narcotics detectives stormed the houses, sometimes bashing in front doors, on streets like Blue Sage Court and Balsamina Drive.

Many had no idea they lived near a marijuana grow house, often rigged with custom irrigation systems, 1,000-watt lights and shiny metallic wallpaper.

"Nobody suspected anything," said retired Air Force Maj. John Stephens, who lives across the street from a house in Brandon's Providence Lakes that was raided.

But the busts did not take everyone by surprise.

Some tips to sheriff's officials came from residents who had noticed covered windows or odd comings and goings at homes where no one really seemed to live.

Others, even if not suspicious, said the presence of a grow house didn't strike them as all that remarkable.

"Probably one in 100 houses around here has pot in it," said Ronald DeSear, who lives near Brandon High School on a neatly manicured street of well-maintained, newer homes — one of which was raided this year.

Last week, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office announced that in the past six months detectives had raided 62 suburban homes used to grow marijuana.

Deputies made 70 arrests — with more expected — and seized 1.5 tons of marijuana with an estimated value of $13-million.

The grow houses, Sheriff David Gee said, were "hiding in plain sight" in suburbs from Balm to Brandon to Town 'N Country to Odessa.

But some weren't hidden quite well enough. While some neighbors say they noticed nothing unusual about the house down the block, others apparently did.

Sheriff's officials began investigating 1302 Borden Court after someone called in a tip to Crime Stoppers in June.

The windows at the Valrico home were all blacked out or covered, the tipster said, and two white vans dropped by occasionally, only to leave an hour or two later.

At the home, investigators called in TECO, which found an illegal tap on the electric meter that allowed the residents to siphon off extra power.

Inside, they found about 85 marijuana plants.

Another tip, this one from a confidential informant, led sheriff's narcotics Detective Ronnie Cooper to the house in Providence Lakes' Watermill neighborhood.

At 1914 Blue Sage Court, Cooper walked by the front of the home and said he could smell two things, according to an affidavit used to get a search warrant.

One aroma was a strong berry scent. The other was the odor of "fresh green marijuana" coming from the garage or front door, he said.

A week later, Cooper returned and again smelled the berries, which he said came from a scented broom hanging next to the front door.

After he knocked, James Shepherd Jr. came to the garage door. Cooper told him he was looking for a lost dog and noticed, he said in the affidavit, the smell of marijuana coming from the garage.

Cooper and the sheriff's narcotics team returned with a search warrant on Feb. 19. Inside, they found 506 marijuana plants, plus 18 lighting systems, timers, watering systems and liquid fertilizers.

But that wasn't all.

They also discovered a 6-month-old notice from Verizon to a woman named Mindy Bonis, who lived a few miles away.

The notice had Bonis' address, 922 Balsamina Drive, and mentioned a missed appointment for cable television installation.

With that as a lead, detectives went to Bonis' address, where they found and arrested Shepherd.

And at Bonis' front door, Cooper said he noticed a couple of familiar things.

First, there was the same berry-scented broom as at the first house.

Second, he could see, through the front door, the same kind of air freshener that he found at the first house.

Finally, there was Shepherd, who told deputies he lived at the second home on the weekends.

Given the "totality of the circumstances," including Bonis' cable notice at the first home, Cooper said he believed the people at both houses had "a common interest in the illegal cultivation of marijuana."

So he applied for and received a search warrant for the second house, too.

Inside, however, investigators found only a plastic container and a tin, both with marijuana residue, along with glass pipes, a marijuana grinder, water nutrient meter, scale and some notebooks.

Still, the raid caused a stir in Bonis' neighborhood.

"It was a shock, because it's not expected in this kind of neighborhood," said next-door neighbor Pete Oberg, 58.

Bonis, then 23, was charged with misdemeanor possession of cannabis.

The charge was later dropped, according to court records, after prosecutors concluded there was insufficient evidence against her.

Shepherd didn't get off as easily.

He and three other men were indicted on a federal charge of conspiring to raise cannabis crops at houses on Blue Sage Court, Twilight Drive in Valrico and Pine Street in Seffner.

All four have pleaded guilty and are scheduled to be sentenced this fall.

Shepherd faces five to 40 years in prison and a fine of up to $2-million, though federal prosecutors have indicated in a plea agreement that they would not oppose a downward adjustment of the sentence.

And residents in Watermill remain surprised.

More than 500 plants, right there in the house on the corner lot, and no one suspected a thing.

Marijuana grow house raids

Address: 1302 Borden Court, Valrico

Date of raid: June 3

Plants seized: About 85

Neighborhood buzz: "It was kind of surprising." — neighbor Keith Rosenau

Address: 922 Balsamina Drive, Brandon

Date of raid: Feb. 20

Plants seized: No plants, but authorities did find marijuana residue in two containers.

Neighborhood buzz: The raid itself "was a shock, because it's not expected in this kind of neighborhood." — neighbor Pete Oberg

Address: 1914 Blue Sage Court, Brandon

Date of raid: Feb. 19

Plants seized: 506

Neighborhood buzz: "You probably expected to see Publisher's Clearinghouse before you saw the Sheriff's Office here, but that's what I expect made it the perfect cover." — neighbor Tony Marincovich

Marijuana grow houses surprise neighborhoods 08/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 18, 2008 12:48pm]
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