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Pot houses sprout in burbs to mixed reactions

Neighbors couldn't help but stare as detectives stormed the houses, sometimes bashing in the front doors, on streets like Cardiff Drive and Hunting Hawk Trail.

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.

"We didn't know what was going on," said Reyne Klein, who lives across from one such home just south of Boy Scout Road in Odessa. "That was the scary part."

It was just one of at least 62 suspected grow houses raided in the past six months. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said this month it made 70 arrests — with more expected — and seized 1.5 tons of marijuana with an estimated value of $13-million in the raids.

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

But the raids 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 street of well-maintained newer homes — one of which was raided this year.

And what is it like to live near a grow house? Disturbing to many. But to at least a few others, it wasn't a big deal at all.

• • •

An anonymous complaint to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Web site led Hills­borough detectives to a Northdale home with black plastic sealing the windows from the inside.

Inside 4223 Summerdale Drive, detectives found seven marijuana plants, more than two-thirds of an ounce of loose pot and various growing supplies, according to an arrest report.

Lenore Colbert Ball, then 37, and Ryan Clifford Johnson, then 24, were arrested on March 4. In July, each pleaded guilty to felony possession of cannabis and was sentenced to 18 months' probation.

Scott Green, 45, who lives directly across from the property, said he never noticed anything to suggest there was a grow house across the street.

"The only strange thing we noticed was that they never put out any trash," he said. "Never."

Green said he moved to Northdale because of the schools and finds it to be a well-established and safe neighborhood. But too many homes have been purchased by investors and rented out. That, he said, is something homeowner associations should try to prevent.

"They rent them out to any Tom, Dick and Harry who doesn't care about the property or the value of the property, and then we are the ones affected by that because our property values go down," Green said. "That's what bothers me more."

• • •

In Town 'N Country, a confidential source tipped sheriff's officials to the beige stucco house on Little River Drive.

The resident, 31-year-old Adam Bishop Voelcker, had sold the tipster pot in the past, officials said.

Investigators found the windows covered with black material, according to a search warrant. Checking with Tampa Electric Co., they found that Voelcker's electric bill ran $330 to $390 a month — three times the average for five other houses on the street.

Inside, detectives said they found 95 marijuana plants. Voelcker has pleaded not guilty to state charges of cultivation of marijuana, possession with intent to sell marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia.

To longtime resident Lina Ciccarelli, what authorities found is worrisome.

"It concerns me," said Ciccarelli, 58, the assistant manager for a company at Tampa International Airport, "because if someone's doing illegal drugs … it draws that type of people to the neighborhood, and they'll start breaking in and committing crimes."

• • •

Not everyone worries about the pot grower next door.

In Logan Gate Village, Nicole Gagne, 20, said she and friends were playing video games on May 6 when deputies converged on Darrien C. Pierce's house at 12512 Cardiff Drive.

"Suddenly, we hear the cops banging on the gate," she said. "And then we heard what sounded like I guess the door breaking in."

Deputies found 25 plants and arrested Pierce, the 42-year-old homeowner. On Monday, he pleaded guilty to charges of cultivation of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia. He was sentenced to 364 days in jail, with the sentence to be suspended once he completes a drug treatment program at the jail.

Gagne, who said Pierce was "really nice and friendly" and had done a lot of work fixing up his house, was unconcerned about the charges against him.

"It was just a little bit of pot, not something to get worried about," she said. "If it were something different, like methamphetamine, that would get me a little bit worried because that's actually dangerous."

But growing marijuana illegally is dangerous, sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said. What grow houses produce ends up in the community, often in the hands of juveniles. And many grow houses tap into the electric grid illegally to steal power. That increases the cost of electricity for everyone else.

"It is a criminal enterprise that ripples out within our community," she said.

• • •

On W Skagway Avenue, near Busch Boulevard and N Armenia Avenue, one neighbor said there's no way the owner of the neat blue house with the cheerful yellow shutters would ever do anything to bring the cops to her front door.

And she didn't.

But Debra Caito, 53, was in poor health. Because of complications from surgery, she had the use of only one lung, so she rarely walked out to the old shed in the back yard.

That's where her son, 21-year-old Thomas Caito, set up his grow operation.

Thomas Caito, who pleaded guilty to manufacture and possession of cannabis and is serving 18 months' probation, said he went online and found seed suppliers in England and France, then bought growing equipment from local hydroponic gardening stores.

The pot, he said, was for him and his friends.

"I wasn't like some big-time drug dealer," said Caito, who works for a pool service but aspires to be a firefighter. "I just like to smoke — a lot."

In a search warrant, however, sheriff's officials said a confidential informant pointed them to Caito and made two buys before they moved in.

On April 9, authorities pulled 48 plants from the shed.

His mother had "no idea" what was going on as her front yard filled up with sheriff's cruisers.

"What the heck could possibly be going on?" Debra Caito said she wondered. "I was clueless."

Despite the raids, Thomas Caito said suburban grow houses probably will continue to pop up.

"I'm sure there's going to be somebody else to take their place," he said. "People will step up."

Marijuana grow house raids

12512 Cardiff Drive, Logan Gate Village

Date of raid: May 6

Plants seized: 25

Neighborhood buzz: "It was just a little bit of pot, not something to get worried about. If it were something different, like methamphetamine, that would get me a little bit worried." — neighbor Nicole Gagne

Shed behind 2110 W Skagway Ave., North Tampa

Date of raid: April 9

Plants seized: 48

Neighborhood buzz: "I was clueless." — homeowner Debra Caito, whose son grew the marijuana in a backyard shed

5822 Little River Drive, Town 'N Country

Date of raid: June 25

Plants seized: 95

Neighborhood buzz: "It concerns me, because if someone's doing illegal drugs … it draws that type of people to the neighborhood, and they'll start breaking in and committing crimes." — neighbor Lina Ciccarelli

17621 Hunting Hawk Trail, Odessa

Date of raid: Feb. 22

Plants seized: 110

Neighborhood buzz: "It's next door to a horse pasture. We have horses. You smell the horsey smells. It (the marijuana smell) gets covered up, I guess." — neighbor Reyne Klein

Pot houses sprout in burbs to mixed reactions 08/14/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 19, 2008 1:50pm]
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