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70 pot plants seized in Boca Ciega Bay home

No arrests have been made in what detectives are calling an "extensive grow operation" in a $1.75-million home.

By GRAHAM BRINK
Published April 28, 2006


ST. PETE BEACH - For the second time in five months, local law enforcement officers have busted an indoor marijuana growing operation in a wealthy neighborhood.

St. Pete Beach police and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office executed a search warrant at a $1.75-million waterfront home overlooking Boca Ciega Bay. They carted away about 70 marijuana plants and thousands of dollars in high-powered lamps and electrical equipment, sheriff's spokesman Mac McMullen said.

"The detectives described it as an extensive grow operation," McMullen said. "It was high-quality marijuana."

No arrests had been made in the case as of Thursday evening. Detectives were tight lipped about what led them to the operation at the two-story home at 245 46th Ave. in St. Pete Beach. The investigation continues.

Steven G. Matson bought the 3,855-square-foot house in December for $1.75-million from Jim and Shawn Sotolongo, property records show. The Sotolongos bought the home a few months earlier for $1.17-million. Neighbors said the home did not appear to be regularly occupied in the past few months.

Matson and the Sotolongos appear to have deeper ties than a single real estate transaction. Among other links, the Sotolongos owned property at 12412 Marjory Ave. in Tampa.

Matson used the same address for an auto sales company he registered with the state's Division of Corporations. Also, Shawn Sotolongo once went by Shawn Matson, according to records.

Neither Matson nor the Sotolongos could be reached for comment.

Agents in Hillsborough County shut down a similar marijuana growing operation in December.

Eleven people, mostly from Tampa, were indicted in federal court on charges of conspiring to possess with intent to distribute more than 1,000 marijuana plants. Agents said the multimillion-dollar operation was centered in some of the area's most affluent neighborhoods.

Drug enforcement agents used undercover informants to get inside information about indoor farms in at least 10 purchased and rented houses and apartments in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties.

Some indoor growing operations have been busted in the past when power companies noticed an abnormal spike in energy use. Some grow operations find ways around the problem.

The suspects in the Hillsborough case had their own carpenter and electrician. The wiring in the homes was altered to bypass the meters. Inside, growers powered 1,000-watt lamps with stolen electricity that could easily have cost more than $1,000 a month, agents estimated.

The Hillsborough grow operation cost about $100,000 to set up, according to court documents. The suspects made about $250,000 from harvesting the crop at just one of the homes in Tampa.

Much of the marijuana cultivation in Florida has moved indoors. Marijuana grown indoors can be more potent than marijuana grown outdoors and can yield $4,000 to $6,000 a pound.

There isn't much open land left, away from prying eyes, to grow it outdoors in sufficient quantities, said Jeannette Moran, spokeswoman in the Drug Enforcement Administration's Miami office.

Indoor growers also have the advantage of controlling the amount of heat and water. They also control who goes in and out of the home, making such operations hard to detect.

The DEA has busted operations in all kinds of neighborhoods, Moran said.

"It's everywhere. Neighbors often have no clue it's going on," she said. "A lot of the times it's in rental properties. Sometimes the owners don't know anything about it."

Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Graham Brink can be reached at 727 893-8406 or brink@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 28, 2006, 01:15:08]


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