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Indoor marijuana growing in Southwest Florida is booming from Cape Coral to Golden Gate in eastern Collier County.
Many are sophisticated operations with Miami or other east coast connections.
Gone are the days when marijuana by the ton was off loaded from ships and smuggled into Southwest Florida.
Gone too are the times when agents raided acres and acres of marijuana fields hidden in the vastness of the Everglades.
As police became more effective at breaking up these illegal ventures, growers turned to a new method: They went indoors to avoid the prying eyes of narcotics agents.
This year alone, narcotics deputies and federal drug agents have raided 29 so-called grow houses in Collier County.
Twenty-two people have been arrested and 3,060 plants seized along with $162,000 worth of equipment and harvested marijuana worth more than $3 million. That's more than in the years 2002-2004 combined.
Investigators are stepping up ways to thwart growers, mainly using old-fashioned methods: surveillance, tips from informants, average citizens and utility workers, and putting more officers on the job.
In one of the biggest busts in Cape Coral history, police on Sept. 1 raided 10 houses and charged 14 people in an elaborate marijuana ring.
In all, police reported seizing 421 marijuana plants with a street value of more than $900,000.
The largest indoor marijuana growing operation found in Southwest Florida was discovered in January when officers seized 30,000 plants worth $60 million growing in six houses in rural Montura Ranch Estates in Hendry County.
Eleven men were arrested, and four more people were charged later.
Detectives suspect much of the marijuana grown indoors is taken to the Miami area. From there, it is shipped to cities such as New York and Boston, said Lt. Nelson Shaddrick, a Collier County sheriff's narcotics investigator.
Since the spate of grow house raids earlier this year, deputies are finding fewer pot houses in Collier County.
Growers may be laying low because of the case in which four people were found slain in a grow house in Golden Gate Estates on June 26, Shaddrick said.
He said the attention paid to that case may have made them skittish.
Last month, for example, deputies raided only two grow houses in Golden Gate Estates.
They seized 140 plants and 4.14 pounds of harvested marijuana worth $148,000, along with $12,000 worth of equipment, and made two arrests.
Shaddrick said it's only a matter of time before more grow houses are found.
"I don't believe they're going to stop. There's too much money involved," he said.
One evening in September 1991, deputies raided a house in Golden Gate Estates and found an underground bunker in the yard filled with young marijuana plants.
The bunker was 8 feet deep. A wooden roof was covered with sod as camouflage to keep the bunker from being spotted by the prying eyes of sheriff's pilots flying overhead.
Deputies seized 200 young marijuana plants, each in its own container. They were being grown by artificial light.
Arthure Edward Perkins and Kathleen Marie Adie — already on probation on drug charges — were charged with growing the illegal indoor crop.
In December 1991, they were sentenced to a year in jail and three years of probation.
Since that time, indoor marijuana cultivation has increased steadily, especially during the past five years, Shaddrick said.
Statistics bear this out.
Collier deputies raided two grow houses and seized 242 plants worth $242,000 and arrested two men in 2002.
In 2003, deputies raided five grow houses, seized 455 plants worth $455,000 and arrested seven people.
In 2004, deputies raided 16 grow houses, seized 1,427 plants worth $1.4 million and arrested 11 people.
Indoor pot farmers choose mostly rural areas such as Golden Gate Estates — a vast area in eastern Collier County — to avoid detection.
Lehigh Acres, where many streets on the outskirts are sparsely populated, is another popular grow house location.
In May, deputies raided two houses in Lehigh Acres, seized 175 plants and arrested two people. In another raid that month, deputies seized more than 200 plants in another Lehigh Acres house and arrested two people.
Agents in May also raided seven houses in Cape Coral, seizing 622 plants worth $800,000. Investigators said they believe the operation was connected to a Miami gang and the pot was destined for Florida's east coast for shipment to other cities.
Many of the grow house operations, Shaddrick said, fit the same profile: Most growers are from the state's east coast who rent the homes. The homeowners, in many cases, are from the Miami area.
Marijuana found in these houses costs more to grow, has more drug content and yields more profits than marijuana grown outdoors in the past, Shaddrick said.
"In a typical grow house, there is $10,000 to $30,000 worth of equipment," he said.
The materials and equipment are the same as those used to grow any crop indoors, and are sold at garden and farm supply stores.
That includes potting soil, water funneled through PVC pipes to irrigate the plants, and electricity to power special lights that give off the right amount of ultraviolet rays. Air conditioning is a must so the plants don't dry out.
The high-potency marijuana fetches $3,000 to $5,000 per pound and a grower can recoup his or her investment in equipment with one harvest, Shaddrick said. He said a grower can have four harvests per year.
"You don't know who you're living next to," said Ted Hirschfield, 64, of Lehigh Acres.
That's the problem with grow houses and other types of crime in the community, he said.
"Lehigh Acres is kind of the wild west of Lee County," Hirschfield said.
Hirschfield said he will report any suspicious activity to police.
Gail Davis, who also lives in Lehigh Acres, said she and her neighbors are concerned about the grow houses.
"I know that law enforcement is stretched to the limit, but if there's anything they can do, we're behind them 100 percent," she said.
In Golden Gate Estates, sheriff's officials have responded to residents' requests for more patrols by opening a new substation.
Residents also are trying to help the police.
"Our members are on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary," said Mario Valle, a home construction contractor and president of the local civic association.
Shaddrick said residents' tips help.
"Neighbors will usually get together and agree that 'there's something funny going on here.' Then one of them will call us. We love that," Shaddrick said.