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Marijuana Investigation Still Unfolding


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It all started with a simple phone tip. Back in December, when a DEA agent from Miami called the Fayette County Sheriff's Office, all investigators had to go on was a name and a hunch, Capt. Mike Pruitt said.

The name was Merquides Martinez, a 35-year-old Cuban national who ran a store in Fayetteville specializing in the sale of hydroponic indoor growing equipment.

The hunch, according to Miami drug agents, was that he was a "master grower," specializing in setting up basement grow rooms for the cultivation of high-grade marijuana.

Fayette officers put Martinez under two months of heavy surveillance, watching as he made daily trips to home improvement stores and various houses, before finally making their move in mid-February.

"Originally, we thought we might find three or four locations," Pruitt said. "But every house has led us to another house. It just snowballed into this big thing, and it keeps going."

That "big thing" has grown into the largest indoor marijuana growing investigation in Georgia history, perhaps in the nation. So far 55 houses in 13 counties containing a total of 52,000 plants have been raided, and the hits keep coming.

As recently as Thursday, more searches were being conducted in Walton County, nearly a month after the first house was raided.

In between, two houses in Hall County, six in Jackson County and 11 in Gwinnett County were added to the tally. Each scene is almost identical in its sophistication.

Like a space-age greenhouse, the mylar-coated walls, floors and ceilings reflect the nonstop barrage from dozens of powerful ultraviolet lights moving on an automated track system.

Plastic tubing irrigates each plant and commercial-grade heating and air units provide constant ventilation. The amount of power needed for such a setup is more than most could afford, so it's stolen.

"The power diversion is just enormous," Pruitt said, pointing out that at every house, the growers have tapped into the main electricity line and bypassed the residential meters.

Most of the grow houses are two-story, newer homes in well-manicured subdivisions, ranging in price from $250,000 to $300,000. A typical house of that size would, on average, consume about 1,000 kilowatts in a month, Pruitt said.

The grow houses use 4,000 kilowatts in five days, he said, or about 25 times the normal electrical usage.

"The power companies have probably lost millions of dollars," Pruitt said.

Law enforcement officials say Martinez had a helpful ally in obtaining the houses -- his wife. Prior to her arrest, Blanco Botello was a licensed Realtor with RE/MAX of Fayetteville, and closed on at least 17 of the grow houses, authorities said.

Many of the houses, albeit heavily mortgaged, were purchased legitimately, some as far back as 2005. One house in Hall County's Georgian Acres subdivision sold in January to a Luis R. Rojas-Argote for $268,900.

Hall County Drug Task Force members found 173 marijuana plants growing in the basement. They're still looking for Rojas-Argote.

"Our guys have been working with some of the other jurisdictions in developing some leads," said Lt. Scott Ware, commander of the Hall County Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad.

Most of the 35 people currently in custody are Cuban nationals. Officials say they started grow houses in south Florida and eventually migrated to Georgia. How long they've been in operation is hard to say.

One thing seems certain -- the marijuana wasn't being sold in Georgia. According to law enforcement officials, it was bundled into plastic-wrapped bricks, loaded into trucks and travel trailers and smuggled into a better-paying market: New York City.

Pruitt says this potent variety of marijuana, which might bring $3,800 per pound in Georgia, can easily command $6,000 per pound up north.

"This is the high-dollar stuff," he said.

Paperwork has been vital in the investigation. The paper trail led to the Hall County homes, where one house even contained Martinez' immigration papers, Pruitt said. Power companies have gotten wise to the electricity theft, too, leading to other raids.

In some jurisdictions, the sheer volumes have become overwhelming for law enforcement officials.

"Our specialized narcotics unit is working around the clock and it is taxing our resources," said Corp. Darren Moloney of the Gwinnett County Police Department, which has conducted 11 raids since Feb. 11 and seized more than $10 million in marijuana and contraband.

Moloney added that the drug operation was not taking police off the streets from their normal protective services.

One big problem is what to do with all those plants, which the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's crime lab will not take off the hands of local agencies.

Moloney would not say how the department is storing the plants, but did say they would be destroyed by burning after the case is concluded in court.

That will be a federal court, after the decision Wednesday to allow the U.S. Attorney's office to prosecute the cases.

Since that decision, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration has referred all questions to the U.S. Attorney's office, which has declined to comment.

When the grow houses began falling like dominos, Pruitt and the other Fayette County drug investigators who broke the case felt there might be as many as 60 in Georgia.

"Now, I'm thinking 100," Pruitt said. "I keep thinking it's going to stop at some point.

"Every day, something leads us in a different direction. We're still in the go mode right now."

Newshawk: CoZmO - 420Magazine.com
Source: gainesvilletimes.com (Georgia)
Contact: sgurr@gainesvilletimes.com
Copyright: 2004-2007 The Times
Website: Home - gainesvilletimes.com


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The plants that are confiscated and can not be held as evidence should be donated to Medical Marijuana Compassion Clubs. They could sell the Marijuana or Donate it to them to distribute Marijuana to the patients:
It would be the same as the Fish & Game Commission of Oregon who sold all the Salmon that the Columbia River Indians Netted as "Illegal" to Pacific Seafood for Distribution of Oregon,$800.00 for 55K worth of Salmon.
It was also after the fish fiasco, that the DEA ,FBI raided a " Interstate" Grow Operation, that involved the same set ups. A Real Estate Agent,( who set up the deal for the houses) A Power Company Spokesman ( who watched for inside notes on Power Consumption and inquiries from the law) , and lots of Frat Brothers to man the houses and sell the weed.
It just happened to be that the Power Company Spokesman's father was a Senior FBI Agent. Gee dad, help me get out of this one.
By Regulating and Taxing Marijuana,these operations will bring in a tremendous amount of Tax Dollars, and Power Consumption Dollars. There should be no need to By Pass the power, if it is, then people should be prosecuted for theft of the power. If Growers are growing more than the Laws would allow with proper Permits, and Proper Taxation, than an arrest should be allowable.
The time is upon the United States of America, and its Citizens to vote and implement a " Regulatory and Taxed" based agency to oversee and assist on controlling the Growing and Distribution of Marijuana.
The more Marijuana the United States of America can produce, Regulate & Tax, the less Marijuana other countries such as Canada, Mexico, Jamaica, Cost Rica, Central America grow, will enter the United States borders, without being taxed.These countries take out of the United States an estimated approximate amount of over 3 Billion Dollars per year in Marijuana Profits. It is a Supply in Demand issue, as the United States of America does not produce enough Marijuana to take care of the current business market. It never has. Almost any other commodity being manufactured in the USA or being brought into the USA is Regulated and Taxed.
The time has come to push forward in every State, for Marijuana to be Regulated and Taxed.
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