Pubdate: Mon, 11 Feb 2008
Source: Florida Today (Melbourne, FL)
Copyright: 2008 Florida Today
Author: Kaustuv Basu


Dozens Of The Illegal, Lucrative Operations Were Discovered Last

Mariceli Acevedo wanted her husband to get a job. His inability to
find steady work was straining their marriage.

Juan Torres found one.

He dressed for work and left their middle-class neighborhood of South
West 97th Court in Miami every day.

His job: Tending marijuana grow houses 180 miles away in

Torres' new occupation didn't register even a blip on police radar
screens. That changed Dec. 12 when Torres killed 24-year-old Omar
Garcia, his cousin-in-law by marriage, near Turtle Mound Road. He then
drove to Lake Washington Road, where he shot dead Elieser S. Alfonso,
his 36-year-old brother-in-law, before turning the gun on himself.

Investigators can't say for sure whether it was problems within the
drug business or just bad blood in the Cuban-American family that
sparked Torres' deadly shooting spree. But when guns were fired that
December morning, it exposed a clandestine marijuana grow network in
the middle of a quaint rural subdivision.

Grow houses were found in both locations. Within days, investigators
found four more grow houses in the Melbourne area linked to the clan.

The men's wives, who live together in Miami, told Brevard County
Sheriff's Agent Carlos Reyes they were unaware what business their
husbands were involved in.

"Without this incident, we might have never known about them," Reyes

But Brevard County investigators know now.

They also know that Torres, Garcia and Alfonso represented a kind of
criminal enterprise adept at avoiding detection and increasingly
likely to set up operations in places like Melbourne.

Agents said they're seeking three more people, all thought to be from
South Florida, who may be connected to the Melbourne grow operations.

"We are seeing a trend of Cubans branching out throughout the state to
establish grow-house operations," said Special Agent Jeannette Moran,
who works at the Miami office of the Drug Enforcement

Stealth is wealth

Goats and horses. Five Chihuahuas. Even a canary. And Christmas

These were all signs of typical, domesticated life in two leafy
Melbourne neighborhoods where houses are built on spacious lots,
tucked away from busy roadways and curious neighbors.

Yet for Torres, Garcia and Alfonso, it was an act.

In contrast to the outward signs of domesticity, inside their living
arrangements were frugal, Reyes said. There was little food in their
refrigerators and meager furnishings.

And they were only "home" a few times a week when they traveled up
from Miami to tend their weed gardens.

"They establish themselves as very good neighbors," Cmdr. Doug Waller
of the Brevard County Sheriff's Office said. "And they pay their bills
on time."

Grow houses consume enormous amounts of electricity because they use
hydroponic lights usually installed in greenhouses, air handlers and
machines that produce carbon dioxide.

To avoid any suspicion about high electricity consumption, the
operation tapped power lines illegally.

The grow houses used artificial nutrients in place of soil, and lights
around the clock, leading to rapid growth of the plants that were
harvested three to four times a year, investigators said.

Waller said the marijuana grown locally had very high THC content, the
chemical that gives the drug its mind-altering characteristics. Each
harvest could have yielded as much as 40 to 50 pounds, he said,
netting between $4,000 to $6,000 a pound.

Once the marijuana was harvested, agents believe it was transported
back to Miami, usually in cars.

"There is no sign of their use and distribution in Brevard," Waller

"There was nothing potentially to bring law enforcement into their
houses. They had no connection to the county except for the operations
at the residences."

And their records were clean: Torres, Garcia and Acevedo did not have
criminal records. And there were no reports of police visits to the


In the past year, 13 grow houses in the county were reported to the
DEA. But many more have been discovered in Brevard, including at least
12 discovered by Palm Bay police in 2007 and another 13 by the Brevard
County Sheriff's Office. Other police agencies have also found grow

Statewide, law enforcement agencies busted 730 grow houses from
January to November 2007. Nearly half were in Miami-Dade County.

Brevard County is an ideal setting for grow house operations. It's
rural, there's less heat from law enforcement agencies and there are
fewer rival groups, investigators said.

In South Florida, groups prey on each other and rob their competitors.
It's easy because robberies like these are never reported, Reyes said.

A November incident in Grant-Valkaria, where one gang tried to hit the
grow-house operation of another, is more the norm in Miami. Four men
have been charged with first-degree felony murder, home invasion
robbery and kidnapping with a firearm for the Nov. 19 incident where
Jose Corcho, 43, was found slain at his Grant-Valkaria residence,
which also housed a marijuana grow-house operation.

In June, the DEA started a database about grow houses and how they
might be connected to one another.

"It is an effort to tie in all the information to see if one grow
house is connected to another," Moran said. "The aim is to take down
an entire organization instead of taking down one grow house at a time."

In the weeks since the December incident, additional grow houses have
been busted in Rockledge and Merritt Island, where investigators found
more evidence of people covering up their criminal enterprise with the
appearance of quiet domesticity.
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