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Marijuana farms take a suburban disguise

By KEVIN GRAHAM
Published March 9, 2006


TAMPA - Beneath the noses of residents in some of Tampa Bay's most affluent neighborhoods, federal drug agents say a multimillion dollar marijuana growing operation took root.

A home in Tampa Bay Bucs coach Jon Gruden's neighborhood and another near family members of a prominent philanthropist are listed in federal documents as places where a "sophisticated" organization of people raised more than 1,000 marijuana plants for distribution.

"Look at the houses. These are nice neighborhoods," said Dominic Albanese, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration Tampa office. "Drugs are everywhere."

DEA agents used undercover informants to get inside information about the indoor farms in at least 10 purchased and rented houses and apartments in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties. In December, a federal indictment charged 11 people, mostly from Tampa, with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 1,000 marijuana plants.

Those charged in court documents included Herbert Ferrell Jr., Rigo Same, Rigoberto Same Jr., Yasmany "Monny" Same, Mynor Bonilla, Delvys Villafuerte Castellon, Giovanny Caballero, Jose "Johnny Man" Gonzalez, Jose "Pepe" Diaz, Rocco "J.R." Scarley Jr. and Irisleidy "Edy" Morales. Federal court documents show that Ferrell started setting up relationships with real estate agents more than 10 years ago in Georgia to grow marijuana inside homes before he brought the operation to Florida in late 2004.

Bonilla, accused of scouting out homes for growing the marijuana, waived his right to appear during an arraignment before a U.S. magistrate judge on Wednesday. He entered a plea of not guilty.

The others have either gone before a judge or are behind bars awaiting court appearance.

How did such an elaborate drug ring manage to set up and operate in some of the area's most exclusive communities?

"Because we get up and go to work every morning. You wave to your neighbors, and you see them at night," said Albanese. "We're all such a fast-moving society, you really don't have time to know your neighbors. I suggest you do."

Albanese said the group was smarter than most in setting up operations. They had their own carpenter and electrician. They even had a real estate agent who knew about their illegal activity, he said.

Inside the homes, growers powered 1,000-watt lamps with stolen electricity to duplicate sunlight. Albanese said the homes, if metered, could easily been using $1,000 a month in electricity.

A Tampa Electric Co. spokesman estimated that the growers stole about $40,000 worth of power for the entire operation.

The group used a home on Safe Harbor Drive and one on Whispering Bay Place in Tampa. A duplex on S Habana Avenue. Another home on River Road in Spring Hill and one on Box Drive in Hudson. In Lutz, they used homes on Deerfield Drive, Walker Road and Crooked Lane.

"Usually, we see individuals who turn one room into a growing farm," said John Hammerberg, a Tampa Electric revenue protection specialist. "These were houses where the entire house was turned into a farm."

Had a meter reader detected the abnormally high electricity usage, he would have become suspicious, and Tampa Electric would have investigated and notified law enforcement, Hammerberg said. In this case, the DEA got Tampa Electric involved.

The growers had their electrician rig power lines to come into the homes without it being detected by the meter.

"(The homes) have all the regular appearance of a normal, regular house," Hammerberg said. But once inside, there were "holes in the wall, pipes, growing tanks. Very sophisticated."

And expensive.

Ferrell said that setting up a "grow" usually costs close to $100,000, according to court documents. He said the group made $225,000 on one marijuana farm in Tampa after the crop was harvested.

Agents used recorded conversations made by informants during their investigation. In one conversation mentioned in court records, Bonilla and another man talked about spending up to $50,000 at one store on equipment and supplies. They joked that they had done so much business there that the store expanded into a larger operation.

Bonilla also said that they paid $1,000 per seed for "hog," a high quality cannabis imported from Amsterdam. According to court documents, Bonilla estimated that the group spent close to $300,000 every year on equipment.

When one of the undercover DEA informants asked Caballero, the man investigators said kept tabs on growth production, whether what they were doing was a felony, he acknowledged that it was.

Caballero also said it was just a "slap on the wrist."

Times news researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Kevin Graham can be reached at 813 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 9, 2006, 03:00:34]


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