After six years in prison, Mitchell Shane Estep still remembers the formula:
28 grams per plant.
127 plants per room.
8 pounds of pot.
Using this equation, he filled dozens of suburban homes -- including 14 in Volusia County -- with bedroom jungles of premium marijuana. The neighbors never noticed, and his product always sold out.
Estep, a college dropout from a small West Virginia town, was a marijuana mogul at 25.
"I was never a big pothead," he said. "I can have 100 pounds of marijuana in front of me and I don't care about smoking it. I will take the 100 pounds and sell it, though."
He lived with two girlfriends -- a blonde and a brunette. To go with them, a Porsche and a Range Rover sat in his DeBary garage. A regular on the weekend red-eye to Las Vegas, he spent tens of thousands of dollars at casinos and strip clubs.
Money didn't matter. There was always another house to rent. With each new house, though, Estep added another name to the growing list of people who knew about his empire.
His ultimate net gain was a 10-year prison sentence.
Pot entrepreneurs like Estep have sprung up all across Volusia and Flagler counties. During April and May, narcotics agents busted eight suburban homes in Deltona, DeLand, New Smyrna Beach and Palm Coast. Last week, a house fire uncovered another home-grown crop in Palm Coast.
"We don't even know at this point how many houses there are, and if we are hitting all of them," said Al Ducharme, co-director of the federal government's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program for Central Florida.
Before 2001, most marijuana was grown outdoors or smuggled from Mexico and the Caribbean. Thanks in part to stricter border control since the Sept. 11 attacks and better detection by authorities, marijuana growing has been brought inside by high-tech horticulturists. They use high heat, fertilized water, track lighting and plant genetics to propagate marijuana with dizzying levels of THC, the ingredient that makes users high.
The indoor crops can be worth millions of dollars. In Florida, only vegetables and oranges generate more money each year than pot's invisible harvest, according to a study done by Jon Gettman, a professor at Shepherd University in West Virginia.
Nationwide, from 2001 to 2006, seizures of indoor plants increased 71 percent, federal agents reported.
For investigators, finding indoor nurseries gets harder as home growers build extra interior walls to hide the smell -- like a sweet blast of freshly cut grass -- and to conceal the plants from view.
So, how can you tell if there's a pot farm on your block?
"Get to know your neighbors," advised the head of the Volusia Narcotics Task Force.
SEEDING A CAREER
Less than a month out of prison, Estep lounged in a leather recliner at a Tampa Honda dealership where a friend gave him a job selling candy-colored motorcycles. His clothes hung loosely around his hips and shoulders -- he ate only vegetables and nuts in prison.
Estep fiddled with his new Blackberry, answering calls from friends he'd lost touch with. "You haven't seen me for a while," he laughed into the phone. "You'll forgive me for that, won't you?"
He is 34 years old with short sandy hair, a square face and mischievous eyes. He winked at his female co-workers. With another, he alternated Spanish in an unhurried Southern drawl.
If "marijuana grower" were an option on a career test, Estep's laid-back and punctilious personality would fit the bill.
Before he grew it, however, Estep ran pot via courier from Guadalajara, Mexico, hiding it in furniture and sending it across the Texas border. "I said to myself, 'this is the last time that anybody dictates or bosses me.' "
He was 22.
He read High Times, a magazine for marijuana aficionados, and learned about hydroponics, a method of growing plants without soil. He flew to Amsterdam, where marijuana growing is legal. In the coffeehouses, he studied how the Dutch bred different strains, all the while mailing home boxes with seeds. "I made a conscious decision to make this my career."
Estep planted his first crop in an Orlando apartment. He burned it with excessive light.
Soon, however, his plants were thriving, and he was renting whole houses in upper-middle-class neighborhoods.
"It's like being a bank robber," he said. "He'll tell you he drove by a bank and knew that was a good bank. I just know that's a good house."
He preferred gated communities because they weren't prone to burglaries, and neighbors wouldn't nose through his garbage or peek through his windows. To give the impression people lived in the houses, Estep put televisions and lights on timers.
Estep tacked tarps around the windows and painted walls to prevent mildew -- bud mold is a nasty problem.
"You won't buy a tomato with black spots on it," he said. "You won't buy marijuana with mold on it. You're in the produce market."
He looked up the average monthly electrical bill for each house and determined how much electricity he could use without drawing attention. He never stole electricity, a common red flag for authorities. A system of pumps and hoses from nearby showerheads watered the plants.
"In a matter of hours," he said, "I can have the whole house set up. It takes me longer to buy the stuff at Home Depot."
All that was left to do was spray the leaves weekly and check the pH levels of the water -- marijuana grows best within a certain range.
"I can take care of marijuana easier than I can take care of a pool," he said. "My pool always kept turning green."
POT OF GOLD
The pot Estep smuggled in armoires from Mexico bore little resemblance to what he grew in Deltona. High-tech tricks of indoor growers have increased pot's active ingredient and sent prices soaring.
Hydroponics -- used to grow in a soil substitute like rock wool -- lets the plants soak up nutrients better and bud faster, said Jorge Cervantes, author of several books on marijuana cultivation and a column in High Times where he gives tips to frustrated growers.
Growers tinker with plant genetics, crossing different breeds and importing seeds with high THC genes.
"If you take a look at the indoor marijuana," said Ducharme, the federal drug expert, "the active ingredient is a lot higher in dosage."
It's similar to the difference between a poor Chianti and fine Beaujolais, said Dan Skye, senior editor at High Times.
"If you're going to smoke marijuana," he said, "wouldn't you want a better product?"
Mid-grade marijuana grown outdoors sells for $700 to $750 a pound, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Pot grown indoors sells for $2,500 to $6,000 a pound.
"It's the new gold rush," Skye said. "When you can charge $400 to $700 an ounce, that's far beyond the price of gold, and this is a plant."
GROWING THE GOOD STUFF
Estep crossed a Hawaiian plant with a Dutch plant. The hybrid thrived in the humid Florida air while producing gobs of potent resin, crystals in the buds where the THC resides. Like a chicken farmer fattening hens for slaughter, he aimed to produce the biggest buds in the shortest time.
"The faster I can get this plant up," he says, "the quicker it can bud, and the faster I can get it to the market."
Estep always had a head for numbers, and it came down to a simple equation: 127 plants fit in a typical bedroom. When each plant produced 28 grams of dried pot, then he bagged nearly 8 pounds of marijuana worth about $30,000. Two rooms meant he earned $60,000 every two months. Stagger the time when the plants were placed in each room, and there was no end to Estep's harvest.
Still, he remembered the moment, back in 1997, when he became careless. It all came down to numbers, just like the marijuana.
Estep, a gym rat and bodybuilder, recruited a workout buddy as a partner. As they set up a grow house in Apopka, his partner rattled off the names of friends and family members who now had plants in their homes. Estep quickly added up the list.
"We got more than six people," Estep said. "This thing qualifies as a conspiracy now."
"What do you mean?" his partner asked.
Estep had studied case law before starting his venture, and he knew if caught and convicted, a judge could tack another five years to his sentence as the leader of a marijuana growing conspiracy.
"It was a snowball, and it just kept collecting stuff," he said of his business.
"The ball had to come down the hill. It was only a matter of time before it was going to hit a wall and bust open."
AN EMPIRE WILTS
In just a few years, Estep's empire at its peak included homes in Apopka, Longwood, Deltona, Lake Mary, Heathrow, Orange City, DeLeon Springs and Orlando. He had five trailers in his hometown of Matewan, W.Va.
"I had houses I didn't even know I owned," he said, referring to his rented grow houses.
Homes were juggled when Estep sensed police might be watching him. He dismantled equipment and hauled everything to new houses. He switched the names on the rent and the utility bills. He put his DeBary house, where he lived, up for sale.
Two undercover agents, he says, posed as a married couple looking to buy the house. He thought to ask them for identification, but when he peered out an upstairs window, he saw the woman playfully skipping circles around her faux husband. Estep relaxed, let his guard down.
On Oct. 13, 1999, police officers, DEA agents, sheriff's deputies and SWAT members entered 23 of Estep's homes. They seized 19,000 plants, though Estep estimated he had close to twice that.
Had he been able to harvest all the marijuana growing in the homes that year, the organization stood to make $9 million.
Besides the plants, agents lugged away electronic irrigation devices, lights, timers, turkey and steer manure, even human feces, all used as fertilizers. Grow guides with titles like "Caretaking of the Wild Sinsimella" and "Old Homegrown Quarterly" littered the floors. Agents also found ledgers detailing the times when plants were rooted, watered, transplanted, fertilized and harvested. It all filled four Ryder trucks.
"It's the best haul I've seen in 24 years," one investigator remarked at the time of the bust.
The next day Estep, who had been missing during the raids, drove east across Interstate 4, listening to "The Howard Stern Show" on the radio when Robin Quivers read the news about his houses getting raided.
"I'm going to prison," he thought.
Several months later, Estep accepted a plea deal with prosecutors. A judge sentenced him to 120 months in prison.
"You start calculating," he said "trying to figure out how much time is that?"
A decade, he realized.
More than six years later, Estep knows a new formula. He can take any three-digit number and divide it by 12, spewing answers like grade-school multiplication tables. It's a trick, he says, almost every inmate can do to break down the time left they have to serve.
He said he regrets that his friends went to jail, especially his partner, who had a wife and kids. But he does not regret what he did.
"I just filled the job, the job of marijuana grower for this certain area. Somebody stepped up and took my job when I left. We don't know who it was, but somebody is out there. There are many more of me now."
He still gets phone calls from past customers, asking what he is doing.
Absolutely nothing, is his answer. Estep does not want to divide his life by 12 again. But, the formula stays stuck in his head.
"It's like an actor walking away from being an actor," he says.
"Hollywood can call any day and he can go be in 100 movies. I got 100 houses that I can go rent. Do I want to make that choice?"