LAND O'LAKES — The neighbors didn't know Mr. and Mrs. Yates, the young couple renting a home on Morgans Bluff Court in Plantation Palms for the past year.
They saw Robert Yates, 33, outside from time to time, washing the car belonging to his 24-year-old wife, Katie. The couple's yard was lushly landscaped, thick green grass, petite shrubs, mulch in place, just like all the homes facing the seventh hole of the community's golf course. And like the other homes on this kid-friendly street, it was decorated for fall: two small smiling scarecrows in the yard, another hugging a pumpkin in a "welcome" sign on the door, which was burgundy and framed by floral stained glass. The lights and television went on at night.
The neighbors had no idea what was really going on.
The Yateses didn't live there at all.
According to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, the couple used this lavish 2,347-square-foot home as a marijuana grow house. The house was one of four raided Tuesday morning, including another home in Ballantrae Village where the Yateses actually lived. Authorities say the couple rented that home at 3115 Downan Point Drive, a two-story, 1,520-square-foot gray stucco in another upscale neighborhood.
"I'm shocked," said Mike Milkovitz, 35, a neighbor in Plantation Palms who woke up Tuesday to find the street jammed with police cars. "You don't expect something like that to happen," he said.
Deputies seized 20 plants, 6 pounds of processed marijuana and nearly $5,000 in cash at the Ballantrae house. Another 70 plants and 6 pounds of packaged marijuana were taken from the Plantation Palms home.
"They had a very elaborate system," said Col. Al Nienhuis of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, which did the investigation with the Pinellas County High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force. "They were very technologically savvy."
Nienhuis said lights hung from thin metal cables above the plants, rotating overhead to simulate the rising and setting of the sun. There were big air filtration systems and a couple of desks, but that was it. No food in the cupboards. The lights and TV were timed to switch on at night.
"It was strictly used as an office and as a place to cultivate marijuana," Nienhuis said.
Marijuana grow houses have been in suburban, residential areas in Pasco for a long time. But Nienhuis was surprised at how nice these homes were.
"Anybody would be thrilled to death to live in that neighborhood," he said of the Plantation Palms home. "The bathroom was as big as a lot of people's bedrooms."
Altogether four homes were raided Tuesday morning. Nienhuis said the operations were all related, but declined to say what sparked the investigation.
At the home of Robert Yates' step-father, Reinaldo Ramirez, at 1845 Highland Oaks Blvd. in Lutz, authorities said they found 41 marijuana plants and 588 grams of dried marijuana. Like the home in Plantation Palms, this one is also in a gated community. The front entrance to the house has four two-story columns. Inside are four bedrooms, three baths and a three-car garage. It's listed for $350,000 with Signature Realty Associates.
The fourth house was at 3962 Lake Joyce Drive in Lake Padgett Estates in Land O'Lakes — a 2,138-square foot home right on a lake. Authorities there found 126 marijuana plants and are looking for a suspect named Kevin William Schmitt, 24.
"It's a growing problem," said Lt. Chuck Balderstone of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, of marijuana houses.
He said marijuana can sell for $4,000 to $6,000 a pound, so the lure is there for people to make money. He said people shouldn't be fooled into thinking it is a harmless business.
"With drugs comes money and greed and all the bad things associated with it," Balderstone said.
"It always brings the propensity for violence," he said. "In that type of business, you have to be dealing with shady characters."
Mr. and Mrs. Yates and Ramirez, 58, were arrested. The Yateses both face the same charges: trafficking in marijuana and possession of paraphernalia. Bail was set at $50,150 for each of them.
Ramirez is charged with cultivation of marijuana and possession of paraphernalia. His bail is $5,150. All three remained Tuesday evening at the Land O'Lakes jail.
Nienhuis said it appeared the Yateses believed in the power of positive thinking — the idea that if you focus on things you want, you will get them.
He said there were written messages on the bases of the marijuana plants, saying things like: "prosperity," "financial freedom" and "reaching our goals." He said there was a collage on a wall with Katie Yates' photo holding a big check for $100 million dollars and written on there was a prophecy that she would win the Powerball in December 2009.
There also was a sign, he said.
"We will not get caught."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.