Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Public safety

Four more pot farming cases dropped in Pinellas

LARGO — After a week of plowing through pending case files, Pinellas prosecutors have dropped pot farming charges against four more people because of alleged misconduct by sheriff's narcotics detectives.

A few dozen other cases are still under review, assistant state attorney Beverly Andringa said Tuesday, and eventually prosecutors may reopen old cases where pot growers accepted plea bargains or were convicted at trial.

Charges also were dropped earlier this month against a St. Petersburg man with multiple sclerosis.

All the cases stem from camera surveillance of a Largo hydroponics store. Detectives frequently got search warrants by swearing they could smell growing marijuana from sidewalks or a neighbor's property. Defense attorneys claim detectives actually gathered evidence by illegally trespassing on suspects' property.

Four of the grow house detectives are now on leave because of issues involving "veracity,'' Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said last week. He could not elaborate more because those detectives and other narcotics officers are subject to ongoing internal affairs investigations.

The State Attorney's Office is trying to identify which cases those detectives worked on, Andringa said. Charges are dropped, she said, if prosecution would hinge primarily on those officers' testimony.

"I am ecstatic,'' said Dunedin resident Curtis Brusky, 44, who was caught in 2010 with about 30 plants growing in a bedroom and was facing trafficking charges until Monday.

"This is a big weight off my shoulders.''

Brusky said he was trying to learn how to grow pot and intended to sell it because he faced foreclosure and financial ruin. Like other grow house suspects, he thinks detectives lied on the search warrant when they said they could smell pot from a neighbor's property.

The marijuana was in a back bedroom, 70 to 80 feet from where detectives said they were standing, Brusky said.

"I'm glad somebody is finally taking a look at what they were doing,'' he said.

Prosecutors have already determined that some of the Simply Hydroponics cases will proceed as planned, Andringa said. Search warrants in those cases did not rely so much on officer testimony.

In one case, a warehouse burned down and firefighters found the pot, Andringa said. In another case, a tenant was evicted and told deputies that his landlord was growing pot in the garage.

Many cases are still under review, she said, with assistant state attorneys gathering documents, contacting possible witnesses and evaluating whether prosecution can still proceed.

"There's a lot of gray area,'' Andringa said.

The office is also receiving inquiries from attorneys and defendants from cases where people accepted plea bargains or were convicted. Prosecutors will address those cases when they have time, Andringa said, "but we're not going to even go there yet.''

That's okay, Palm Harbor resident Matt Salla said Tuesday, as long as prosecutors eventually look at his case.

He took a plea bargain for probation in 2010 and is now looking for an attorney to help him undo it.

Salla said he was living out of state when a friend who was renting his house was caught growing 24 plants.

Salla acknowledged Tuesday that he knew about the grow operation and that his fingerprints appeared on one high-power light. So he took the plea bargain.

"I didn't want to go to prison for five years,'' he said. "But we knew all along that they were lying (about smelling pot), but we just didn't know what to do about it.''

Salla, 30, said he worked as a computer programmer before the recession hit. After his plea deal, he said, one good job offer disappeared when the company found his felony record.

Now he tries to earn money buying items at auctions and reselling them on Craigslist or eBay.

Chief assistant state attorney Bruce Bartlett said the office hopes to make final decisions on the grow house cases "sooner rather than later'' and that could depend partly on what Gualtieri's internal affairs investigations turn up.

"We have a lot of confidence in the sheriff and his ability to ferret out what inappropriate actions might have existed with these fellows,'' Bartlett said. "We are kind of waiting to see his conclusions and what action he is taking.''

Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at (727) 893-8442 or [email protected]

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