The day began as uneventful, but by the end of the day Nov. 28-29, the Suwannee County Drug Task Force, along with the Columbia County Sheriff's Office, had hauled in 10 people suspected of operating elaborate marijuana growing operations inside structures, raided nine grow sites and confiscated 300 high grade plants and lots and lots of equipment used to grow the marijuana inside structures away from the prying eyes of the law.
Suwannee County Sheriff Tony Cameron and Columbia County Sheriff Bill Gootee estimated the value of the pot and equipment at between $250,000 and $500,000.
Those arrested all knew each other and operated all the locations, according to Sheriff Cameron. All have ties to Cuba and Miami, he added. All of the locations were pirating electricity to power the grow operations, Sheriff Cameron said.
"I am very pleased with the outcome of the investigation and commend all of the officers involved," said Sheriff Cameron. The sheriff added that the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency has been called in to work with the two counties on the case. Sheriff Cameron said the operation may be closely connected to South Florida.
After receiving a tip from an off-duty police officer regarding possible theft of power from a main power line at a home in Suwannee County, Sheriff Cameron said officers thought the reason could be the home was being used to grow marijuana. They were right, Sheriff Cameron said.
An investigation by the multi-jurisdictional drug task force made up of members of the Suwannee County Sheriff's Office, Live Oak Police Department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement led to a raid at 2771 212th Street, Lake City (residence was actually in Suwannee County with a Lake City address), Cameron said. There, Lazaro Rocha, 39, same address, was arrested on charges related to growing marijuana and taken to the Suwannee County Jail. Evidence at this site led to another residence at 3305 206th Terrace, Lake City (residence was actually in Suwannee County with a Lake City address). There, Task Force members found another grow operation with 42 plants. Arrested at this residence was Lazaro J. Montero. At this point, the Columbia County Sheriff's Office was notified of a possible site in their county, Sheriff Cameron said.
Investigators then went to an address on Daisy Road in Columbia County where they found a grow house similar to the first two in Suwannee County. While waiting for a warrant to raid the site, three suspects drove up and were detained and later arrested. Like dominoes, this confiscation led to another nearby in Columbia County and another one in Suwannee County, Sheriff Cameron said.
A Columbia County site was later confirmed while investigators went to a third possible site in Suwannee County. When they got there, what they found was a burned out mobile home. However, further investigation, Sheriff Cameron said, led investigators to believe that house had been used as a grow house also prior to it burning. Sheriff Cameron said when the mobile had caught fire, 911 was called, but no one suspected at the time that it was a grow house.
On Nov. 29, additional information was uncovered which led to the location of three more grow sites in Columbia County, Sheriff Cameron said.
In addition to the Suwannee County residents, also arrested were Lester Rubia Dorvini, 31, Daisy Rd.; Ricardo Coto Vasques, 38, Daily Rd.; Francisco Relova, 43, Daisy Rd.; Frank Gallardo, 37, Endicott Rd.; Jose Gutierrez, 43, Endicott Rd.; Miguel Travieso, 34 of Riddle Lane and Carolos Gonazelz-Perez, 36, of Daisy Rd., all of Lake City, and Jesus Lierena 55, 60th St., Hialeah.
Confiscated were eight vehicles including two trucks, one motorcycle, seven firearms, two utility trailers, one 12x30 storage shed, $3,000 in cash, three central A/C units attached to grow houses, 17 grow lights and ballasts that had never been hooked up and numerous other indoor grow lights and equipment, Sheriff Cameron said.
Columbia County Sheriff Bill Gootee, formerly an FDLE agent stationed in Live Oak and then Lake City, said the normal street value of the plants were about $1,000 per plant. "But, these were such good quality, it is more realistic to believe each plant would yield at least four pounds of high grade marijuana with a street value of $1,000 per pound and that's $4,000 a plant!" Sheriff Gootee said. "Many times in drug operations, you will find the suspects cross county lines to do their business," Sheriff Gootee added. "It is crucial agencies work together, and we certainly appreciate the information from the Suwannee County Sheriff's Office."