Exclusive: Marijuana grow houses increasing in southwest Florida
Photo: Video by fox4now.com
FORT MYERS, Fla. - The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says Florida has more indoor marijuana grow houses than anywhere in the country. And most local agencies report a rise in the number of busts in the southwest part of the state.
In an exclusive report, we're getting both sides. From the drug agent who hunts them down, to an interview only on Fox 4, from a southwest Florida marijuana culitvator who generated hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Detectives say a grow house is huge money. They've busted cells everywhere. From million dollar homes in North Naples to Marco Island and rural areas. And as one former marijuana grower tells us, setting up a grow house isn't the hard part, it's staying quiet that's key.
Thousand watt lights, air conditioners, fertilizer and guns for protection. Ingredients to get rich, if it's done right. No one knows it better than this man. "I call it making money," said a former marijuana cultivator, who asked us to conceal his identity.
He's sharing never-before-seen photos of his grow house in southwest Florida. Pictures taken the day one of them was busted. Investigators seized 56 pounds of plants at the home.
"They just showed up armed with a shotgun and guns and rifles and took us out the house and arrested me," he recalled.
But despite mounting evidence, the case was dropped. A judge ruled deputies had illegally detained him without a search warrant.
"A lot of times they get over zealous and arrest people before they have probable cause to do so," said the former grower's attorney, Rene Suarez, of the firm Brown, Suarez & Rios.
Suarez's client's story is one of many. Collectively, area sheriff's departments reports a rise in marijuana grow houses across southwest Florida. In 2011, a total of 30 search warrants were served among Lee, Collier, Charlotte and Hendry Counties. Last year, 37. And so far this year, 22.
"The last two years we're starting to see an upswing in grow houses again across southwest Florida," said Collier County's marijuana eradication coordinator, whose identity we're not revealing because it could put him in danger. "They're constantly changing their methods to try to stay one step ahead of us," he said. Fox 4 reporter Gabrielle Sarann asked, "How do you keep up with them?" He replied, "It's tough".
"It's a cat and mouse game," described the detective.
He says these operations are intricate. They steal thousands of kilowatts of electricity to power air conditioners. The room temperature must be just right.
"You're not buying a little transformer in a box from Home Depot and then connecting it," he explained. "It's a lot more extensive than that."
And power companies have no way of knowing.
"With the grow houses, the drug houses, it's not that easy for us to detect with our reports because they're doing something to bypass the meter system," said Karen Ryan, the spokesperson for LCEC.
But this former marijuana grower, who works in construction, confirmed, "[It's] very, very easy," to steal electricity.
He says he figured it out. He trusted seven people to cultivate, protect and keep his work secret.
"In this business, there are people that will even grow it for you," he added. "You could hire them, put them inside a home and they will do it for you."
For now, he said, he's out of the drug trade. "If i could get into it in the future, i don't know."
But if there's a next time, he says, everything will be under the radar.
"If you don't tell people what you do, you could do something in your home and nobody would know about it," he concluded.
Although, he walked free, if this grower were found guilty, he could have served up to 30 years in prison. Trafficking marijuana is a first degree felony.