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Marijuana grower sentenced

John Swenson may have been one of Lutz's least noticed residents, and he may have been one of the most unusual.

Swenson, 36, stood before a federal judge last week as a schizophrenic marijuana grower.

He said he was finished with crime and was coping better with his mental disability. Having spent seven months in Hillsborough County's Morgan Street jail, observing fellow inmates "with serious emotional and mental disabilities," Swenson said he felt blessed to be no worse off.

U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday sentenced Swenson to three years and one month in prison after hearing Swenson pledge, "I'm never going to have anything to do with crime again."

"The main reason," Swenson said, "is that I do not want to spend the rest of my life in jail, full of people who are seriously damaged and they don't even know it. At least I know."

Swenson grew pot in a secluded, five-bedroom house near the end of Walker Road, a dead end off Sunset Lane. He was arrested Sept. 22 after a pair of drug agents, acting on a tip, knocked on his door and persuaded him to let them look around.

In one room, they found 1,080 plants. In a backyard guest house, two more rooms held 1,647 more plants. Timers controlled the crop's supply of water, carbon dioxide and light.

Prosecutors later said it may have been the largest pot-growing operation in Hillsborough County.

In jail, Swenson promptly was visited by a court-appointed psychiatrist to check whether he was competent to stand trial. Swenson's father, a retired Army colonel from south Tampa, had told a federal magistrate that his son had tried to jump off San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge as a youth.

Swenson also had attempted suicide in Nepal, where he was jailed for two years after being caught in 1993 with more than 60 pounds of hashish, court records show.

Psychiatrist Arturo Gonzalez found Swenson competent last fall, before he pleaded guilty and again in March, when he was scheduled to be sentenced.

In court Thursday, Swenson told Judge Merryday that he had abused psychedelic drugs.

Sharon Lever, Swenson's assistant federal public defender, told Merryday that her client has been "calming himself down."

"We've had long talks about that," she said, "how you can do it yourself without the help of medication. I think a lot of the drug use was somewhat self-medication."

Because of the size of his pot crop, Swenson faced a minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years. But he cooperated with drug investigators, and prosecutors did not object to the lesser sentence.

Lever told Merryday that Swenson had tried "to provide the government with information about his crime and about marijuana growing in general."