Local News

Last grow house case winding through court

AVON PARK - When Deputy Hiram Obregon, 43, and his wife, Lissette, 41, were arrested in October, they became the last marijuana grow house bust in Highlands County.

Between Nov. 8, 2006 and Aug. 25, 2009. Highlands County Sheriff's Office arrested more than 100 people who eventually became defendants in grow house cases. The property and evidence department inside the jail was so overloaded with evidence - lights, air handlers, pots, interior irrigation systems - that five portable storage trailers were rented.

In the days before House Bill 173 was passed in 2008, the property and evidence department was required to keep all the seized marijuana until the court case was decided and a judge could order it destroyed.

"I would guess that there is not much (evidence from) the original grow cases that we would still have in custody," Sheriff Susan Benton said.

It seemed unbelievable then, but more than 90 otherwise normal houses were purchased, usually in middle-class neighborhoods. The first clue for neighbors of something hinky was the aluminum foil covering the windows.

Strange hums turned out to be the ballasts of grow lights for hundreds of plants in every room. Since so many lights overheated the house, an extra air conditioner or two were needed.

Energy bills would zoom from a few hundred dollars a month to thousands, so after suspicious power companies tipped the police and the house was busted, new grow house owners brought their own electricians to steal the power directly from the poles.

The cases that resulted from the dismantling the grow houses are probably over, said Assistant State Attorney Steve Houchin.

Other than the Obregons, he said, "I don't know if we've got any active cases."

"A lot went to prison, a lot got probation, we're much done with it," Houchin said. "Although he added, he wouldn't be surprised to find outstanding arrest warrants.

Often, deputies simply arrested worker bees, Houchin said, "illegals who were just tending to the plants."

The grow house owners were usually unknown. Investigations by state and federal task forces turned up other Hispanic names, usually from Miami or South Florida, who had signed up for fraudulent loans to buy the houses.

"Highlands County wasn't isolated," Houchin said. "This popped up all over the state."

"This was a very well-organized criminal network that operated here for a very long time," William Athas, an assistant U.S. attorney said during a court appearance with eight defendants in June 2012.

Prosecutors charged Gilberto Santiesteban Sr. and his family set up a network of homes starting in 2004, hired caretakers to cultivate and package the marijuana, and then rented cars and hauled it up I-95 to New York and New Jersey. The going rate: $4,800 per pound, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

In 2008, Gilberto Santiesteban Jr. was returning from New York after delivering a load when he was stopped for a traffic infraction by Osceola County sheriff's deputies. Inside the vehicle: $155,824 and four electric money counters. After that, runners hid the drug money inside spare tires.

In 2011, Florida led the nation in the number of seized marijuana grow houses with more than 800 homes, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. South Florida was the hotbed of activity, the Miami Herald reported.

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, a group operated an extensive network of hydroponic marijuana grow houses throughout South Florida. A criminal complaint said members of the Santiesteban family had been growing marijuana plants in at least 20 houses they owned, rented or controlled in Miami-Dade County from 2004 to May 2012, Channel 6 News in Miami reported.

When the sheriff's office was contracted to police the city, Benton hired almost the entire police force, including Obregon. However, 10 months later, his job went up in smoke.

July 17, 2013, the Leisure Lakes Volunteer Fire Department was called to an early morning structure fire at 3335 Northern Boulevard, outside Lake Placid. A black Nike gym bag outside the house contained a black wallet with his ID card.

Two days later, Obregon suffered another misfortune: People's Trust Insurance Co. hired Joseph Schwartz, a former lieutenant with the Florida Fire Marshal's office, to investigate the fire. He "began to dig around in the rubble of the burned residence and located what appeared to be an indoor cannabis grow operation," according to an October 2013 arrest warrant.

A common tactic for grow house defendants was to plead ignorance. If the husband didn't fall on his sword first, the wife would claim she didn't know what was going on behind locked doors.

After a detective started asking questions about 28 three-gallon pots found in the master bedroom after the fire, along with six grow lights and large carbon filter, Obregon did the opposite: "My wife has been growing some kind of plants in there, she grows s--- all the time."

Both Hiram and Lissette Obregon remain free on bond. He is due back on court for a pre-trial conference on March 19; she is to appear on March 18.