After a tip from Crime Stoppers, law enforcement officers on Thursday plowed under a network of 17 marijuana grow houses from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg.
"Operation Family Tree'' — so named because all the suspects are either relatives or longtime friends — yielded 18 arrests, more than 870 plants, $31,000 in cash, a Winchester 12-gauge shotgun, a truckload of artificial lights, a vehicle and a copy of High Times magazine.
The items were seized at 6 a.m. Thursday after 13 search warrants were issued mostly at single-family homes.
Those arrested were charged with possession and/or cultivation of marijuana.
Michael Platt, captain of the Pinellas Sheriff's Office Narcotics division, said the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force worked for 90 days to bust the grow house chain.
"This operation dismantled a drug organization,'' he said.
Officials say it was headed by Joseph Maglione, 52, and his wife, Susan Maglione, 60, and Richard Decant, 50, and his son Kevin Decant, 27. The friends rented 16 houses in Tarpon Springs, Palm Harbor, Clearwater, Dunedin and St. Petersburg and set up nurseries in each one.
The Magliones apparently grew plants in their own house as well.
Each house had blacked out windows and "once a day, someone would come to check the plants,'' said Sgt. Rick Wold of the Sheriff's Office.
Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats believes they could produce up to a 11/2 pounds of marijuana per year, which could have a street value of more than $4-million, according to a formula the drug task force uses.
Each marijuana plant could be harvested several times in a year.
Unlike some growers, the group apparently paid their electric bills. There was no diversion of power to the houses, according to Coats.
Platt said indoor growing operations are becoming epidemic. Last year, the task force executed 36 search warrants on them.
"This year we have already executed 50,'' Platt said.
Sheriff's narcotics detectives worked with Clearwater Police, Tarpon Springs Police, Pasco County Sheriff's Office and DEA agents on the investigation. Each agency will receive a part of the take.
All the equipment will be destroyed. The plants will be burned at Pinellas County's waste disposal site, "not smoked,'' said Platt.
Eileen Schulte can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4153.
18 arrests made.
870 marijuana plants and $13,000 in cash was seized.
90 days were taken to bust the grow house chain.
1 Winchester 12-gauge shotgun.
1 truckload of artificial lights.
13 search warrants were issued.
17 grow houses involved from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg.