TAMPA — They weren't expecting to find a portal to the past — a slice of Tampa history — in the back yard of the unassuming single-story home.
But on Jan. 9, narcotics detectives searched a rundown house in Tampa's Drew Park industrial area. At first it looked as if their tipster had been wrong. Then they opened the door of a wooden shed in the back yard. They saw a ladder and a 3-foot hole in a concrete floor, and light. Lots of it.
Descending, they discovered a sophisticated marijuana grow house in a place they didn't even know existed — an underground bunker built to store munitions during World War II. They counted 66 plants, some tall as Christmas trees, worth an estimated $231,000, according to police Maj. George McNamara.
It took a few days for detectives to connect with the person who lived above the bunker.
Gustavo Gonzalez, 37, a Cuban national who rented the property at 4107 N Manhattan Ave., was arrested Friday at Animal Services when he tried to pick up a his dog after the police impounded it, McNamara said.
He was charged with possession of cannabis with intent to sell, manufacture of cannabis, owning, leasing or renting for the purpose of manufacturing cannabis, and grand theft in the third degree of electricity. He posted $40,000 bail and was released from Orient Road jail Saturday.
Tampa Electric Co. and the Drug Enforcement Administration worked with the police to investigate reported suspicious activity and discovered that electricity was being diverted from a pole near the residence, but authorities couldn't figure out where it was going, McNamara said.
After obtaining a search warrant, the Tampa police narcotics unit went in Jan. 9 and were amazed at what they found.
After going into the house, detectives searched with no luck until they came across a 3-foot trap door in a plain, wooden shed out back. This led them to a 2,000-square-foot bunker with 12-foot-high ceilings.
In a Police Department video, officers descend into the hole on a metal ladder, and emerge in a small room below where blinding lights reflect off walls covered in what looks like aluminum foil. This room houses only a couple of marijuana plants.
Moving further inside, they find another room, slightly larger than the first, with more lights, foil and plants being cooled by a house fan. Down a long concrete hallway a few more plants are visible, before the officers reach the largest, most spacious room.
Here the underground world is as bright as daylight, with wall-to-wall marijuana plants in irrigated soil like you'd find in a nursery.
A brochure for the Army Air Warning Service School that operated on the base from the early 1940s says the land had been first owned by John Drew, a Tampa contractor and real estate investor who turned subdivision property into a private landing field.
Drew Field was acquired by the city of Tampa in 1928 for a municipal airport. Little was done, however, until the government took over and made plans for the militarization of the site.
In 1939, it was leased to the Army for Drew Army Airfield, a training base for recruits on their way to war. The field was separate from MacDill Army Air Base, and housed the 3rd Fighter Command and B-17 bombers.
At the end of 1946, the property was returned to the city, which then sold the land to private owners.
The area today is known as Drew Park, an aging industrial district best known these days for its X-rated movie houses.
The current owners of the house and the property, including the bunker, are Carlos and Maricela Morffi, according to Hillsborough County property records. The Morffis also own a vacant lot in Drew Park on N Manhattan Avenue near Woodlawn Avenue.
The bunker contained a 5-ton air conditioner, along with a generator, circuit wall, lights and various gardening tools, McNamara said.
"The air filtration system was so sophisticated, it was connected to bird feeders in the yard," he explained.
Gonzalez had been renting the property for four years, but McNamara is unsure of how long the grow house has been operating. Because of the elaborate nature of the setup, Tampa police are investigating whether others were involved.
"It took someone a lot of effort to get all that down there," McNamara said.
"I've seen all types of operations," he said. "But this is one that I will remember because it was such an elaborate scheme. We had no idea this munitions bunker was even here and now we're wondering, 'Are there any more bunkers out there?' "
They are trying to find out.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or [email protected]