LARGO — Hydroponic marijuana has cast a disturbing haze over Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri's election campaign.
Narcotics detectives pursuing indoor pot farmers have been put on leave, accused of breaking the law and lying to judges. Prosecutors have had to drop charges.
Former Sheriff Everett Rice, who wants his old job back, has said this issue is one reason Gualtieri should be tossed from office.
Yet Rice had similar problems during his administration.
One detective from the Rice era (1988-2004) gathered evidence illegally then lied about it under oath. He also justified a search warrant by calling in his own "anonymous tip'' that pot farming was afoot.
In another case, deputies secured a search warrant without revealing that a key tipster had an axe to grind: His wife was having an affair with the suspect.
Three Pinellas judges wiped out grow house cases because Rice's detectives seriously distorted facts. One detective was prosecuted for perjury.
"We've been seeing this go on for decades,'' said Largo lawyer John Trevena, who has defended pot growers under both sheriffs.
Rice came into office as a reformer, vowing to clean up corruption complaints against his predecessor. Recent problems under Gualtieri are also "systematic,'' Rice said in an interview.
"I think people realize that a Sheriff Rice wouldn't put up with such things,'' Rice said.
Gualtieri said his narcotics unit's problems and Rice's "are like looking in a mirror.''
"This isn't a whole unit run amok,'' Gualtieri said. "This is a just a few people, and the same thing happened under his watch.''
In a bizarre twist, one pot grower arrested improperly under Rice was running for sheriff until earlier this month.
In 1997, deputies found 2 pounds of fresh pot in the home of Randy Heine, a Pinellas Park "smoke shop'' owner. He went free after a judge threw out the search warrant for "gross, material misrepresentation of the facts.''
Heine, a perennial candidate for various offices, said he ran for sheriff this time because he thinks Rice concocted that bust. His candidacy ended when he did not pay the filing fee.
Identifying likely pot growers is relatively easy. They often buy garden supplies at hydroponics stores and run up big power bills. But that's not enough to persuade a judge to issue a search warrant. The challenge for detectives is to pile up more evidence — and do it legally.
Fourteen years ago, John L. Hooker of Clearwater went shopping at Worm's Way hydroponics in Tampa. One night, Pinellas narcotics deputy Ken McLean aimed a "thermal imaging camera'' at Hooker's house and found a suspicious "hot spot'' inside that could have been grow lamps.
The clincher for the warrant?
Hooker had left his trash can by the curb that night, McLean said, and it contained stalks of harvested pot and a plastic bag of dried-up leaves. Plus, he said, the Sheriff's Office received an anonymous tip that Hooker was growing marijuana.
A judge signed the warrant, and the bust yielded 70 plants and $7,700 in ill-gotten cash.
Hooker was adamant that he hadn't left his trash out, lawyer Gail Connolly recently recalled.
"I'm not that stupid,'' Connolly remembers Hooker saying. "I would literally wait until the garbage man came down the street and would wheel the trash out to make sure nobody discovered it.''
Thermal photographs clearly showed the trash can tucked neatly against the garage, a private spot that is off-limits for evidence gathering.
Connolly interviewed, under oath, a Tampa cop who helped McLean take the thermal images. He confirmed that the can was nowhere near the curb.
The anonymous tip? McLean had filed it himself.
McLean confessed and resigned within three days. Hooker's charges were dropped. McLean was sentenced to two years of probation for perjury.
Before that case, McLean applied for a search warrant to go after Randy Heine. His Park Boulevard store sold hookah pipes and other items authorities considered drug paraphernalia.
Two informants said Heine was growing pot in his house, McLean and Detective David Antolini told a judge. But when Heine's lawyer, Trevena, interviewed the tipsters under oath, they acknowledged that they were former employees Heine had fired. Yes, they had told detectives that Heine once had a grow operation, but they also said he had long since removed it. The detectives did not tell the judge that part of the story.
What the tipsters didn't know was that Heine had started growing marijuana again — for personal use, he says. So the bust yielded 2 pounds.
Pinellas Circuit Judge Lauren Laughlin threw out the evidence, saying the deputies "systematically misrepresented'' tipster and power usage information.
The raid on Heine's house, store and pipe-making factory involved about two dozen deputies, he said. Rice has consistently denied having any advance knowledge of the raid.
By the time the case was dropped, McLean had left the department.
Antolini was not punished, but soon was in trouble again. In 2000, Antolini and Detective Cynthia Bowman misrepresented evidence about thermal imaging, marijuana sniffing and how they identified a suspect, Pinellas Circuit Judge Dee Anna Farnell wrote.
The detectives also omitted a key fact about an informant: His wife and one of the suspects were having an affair.
Rice suspended Antolini for three days without pay and Bowman for one.
Current allegations involve detectives who obtained search warrants by telling judges they stood on public sidewalks or in neighbors' yards and detected the scent of indoor pot farms.
Defense lawyers theorized that deputies actually gathered evidence by illegally trespassing. One grower said his surveillance camera images of a narcotics sergeant vaulting his fence were seized, then erased.
Suspicions gathered steam after the Tampa Bay Times reported that one narcotics detective had refused to answer under oath when asked if his colleagues ever trespassed.
Gualtieri has put four deputies on leave while investigating and prosecutors have dropped 18 pending cases, compared with three during Rice's time in office.
Problems within Gualtieri's department are not limited to grow house warrants, Rice noted, citing reports about slipshod internal affairs investigations, deputies loafing on the job and possible theft.
"The question is,'' said Rice, "how did that culture come about in the first place?"
Any misconduct now, like that under Rice, involved a few deputies, countered Gualtieri, who also notes that he became sheriff only last November.
"Nobody was running around then saying that Everett Rice has a rogue narcotics unit and a corrupt agency.''
Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at [email protected]