Pot-growing bonanza: Too much to tally yet

Tue, 03/06/2007 - 5:55pm
By: Ben Nelms

You know it is big when drug agents are busting so many locations so quickly that they can not tally the results. But that is exactly what is happening. What began with an investigation by Fayette County Sheriff’s Drug Suppression Task Force has now led to the seizure of 50 marijuana “grow houses” in two states. That includes 49 high-tech operations in 13 Georgia counties and in one location in North Carolina.

Fayette County drug agents initially zeroed in on a local man, 35-year-old Merquides Martinez, and later on his wife, Fayetteville real estate agent Blanco Botello. From that beginning the number of grow houses continued to mount.

Martinez and Botello are in custody on conspiracy charges while the busts continue. The Fayette County-based operation has now led to seizures of high quality marijuana and hydroponic (water-grown) equipment in 49 grow houses in Coweta, Henry, Lamar, Butts, Newton, Jackson, Walton, Barrow, Gwinnett, Jasper, Rockdale and Hall counties, along with one grow house raided Monday afternoon in North Carolina, said Fayette task force Capt. Mike Pruitt.

Some of the most recent seizures included raids on three grow houses in Gwinnett County over the weekend and seven more on Monday, Pruitt said. As staggering as those numbers are, they are likely not the end of the story.

“We are looking at other locations, some in other counties and some out of state,” Pruitt said.

Agents from multiple jurisdictions are working the cases, with so many grow houses being busted so quickly that an accurate count of the amount and dollar value of marijuana and equipment seized has not been tallied, said Pruitt.

“Our task force and the other agencies are finding thousands of plants under hydroponic cultivation, with the seizures at the locations ranging from 170-500 plants,” Pruitt said. “The exact street value of the pot is still being calculated by the different agencies, but we know it’s in the untold millions to date.”

Many of the grow houses are found with the product intact. Others are found absent of marijuana, while still others have been disassembled with the hydroponic equipment being found dumped along roadsides and in other areas in some counties.

The busts of nearly a dozen grow houses began during the second week of February. The number of grow houses quickly grew to 23, with more than two dozen arrests made during that period. Many of the home loans for the grow houses were made by Cuban nationals and arranged by Botello, officers said.

Most of the Georgia-grown marijuana was bound for New York City, Pruitt said. The high grade pot combined with high prices in New York resulted in a price tag of $6,000 per pound, the task force was told by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents familiar with the New York market.

The multi-county, and now multi-state, operation had its beginnings when Fayette drug agents received a tip from the Miami DEA office. That tip led to two months of investigative work prior to the first bust. The tip from DEA came in the form of a name and a possible connection to drug activity.

“I’m extremely proud of the six agents in this task force. They took the name of a grower supplied by DEA and ran with it,” Pruitt said emphatically. “Constant surveillance led to the original grow house. The surveillance was day and night. These agents worked themselves hard to get this done. And this is a huge operation, the biggest I’ve ever heard of. It’s taking a lot of time and dedication to pull off. I couldn’t be more proud of these guys.”

Pruitt said the initial surveillance work by local drug agents quickly gave way to a different form of information that continues to lead to further busts. That information is often coming from paperwork found at many of the grow houses, providing a paper trail to other locations.

Also in the mix are electric power companies that are the target of theft of the electric service needed to supply the vast quantities of power necessary to run the grow houses.

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