On November 14, around 8 a.m., Joseph Latawiec stepped onto his back porch, newspaper in hand, for a little light reading in the morning sun. As he sat down, Latawiec heard the loud whir of a helicopter overhead. At first, he paid no attention; hospital helicopters pass over his Spring Hill home daily.
"But this one was real low and it seemed to be hovering over my house," says Latawiec, a retired ironworker from New Jersey. He walked around to the front of his house to investigate.
Two doors down, at 4132 Weldon Ave., several gun-wielding men in black hooded jackets were rushing in and out of his neighbor's house. They carried large, bright green potted plants and dumped them on the front lawn.
By lunchtime, federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, along with sheriff's deputies from Hernando and surrounding counties, had removed 212 marijuana plants from the beige two-bedroom, two-bath house. It was just one of six raids in Spring Hill that morning that netted a total of 700 marijuana plants, according to news reports. All the homes lay in a 5-mile radius.
"My wife said, 'That's good soil — you should grab some,'" Latawiec recalls. "It was a big deal in the neighborhood."
Growing pot is big business in Florida, which ranks No. 2 in the nation (after California) for indoor marijuana cultivation.
Last year, police destroyed 74,648 marijuana plants gathered from 944 indoor grow sites statewide, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. That's double the amount of plants destroyed in 2006.
"Indoor marijuana-growing is a major problem," says Bill Janes, director of the Florida Office of Drug Control. "The profit margin, the fact that there's multiple growing seasons, the higher THC content — this has caused an increase in these indoor grow houses that is very problematic for my office and for law enforcement."
For years, Florida has ranked high for marijuana cultivation, with most indoor growers concentrated in South Florida. But in the last few years, authorities say, these illicit gardeners are moving to less urban areas, and grow houses are sprouting up like, well, weeds.
"I think a lot of it has to do with the real estate market," says FDLE inspector Jeff Beasley. "It's an economic issue."
And in West Central Florida, our closest commerce center for sinsemilla is Hernando County. In 2006, police confiscated 170 marijuana plants from Hernando County grow houses in 2006; last year, they seized nearly 3,000 plants, more than Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties combined.
Many growers have bought homes in Spring Hill, a bedroom community popular with Pinellas and Hillsborough commuters. In the last five months, police busted 11 grow houses in Spring Hill, all in middle-class or affluent neighborhoods.
"Definitely, there is a lot of these [grow houses] in suburban areas," says FDLE's Beasley. "They're growing in an area law enforcement might not have looked for such activity. It sort of creates a clandestine environment for them to operate out of."
It's the real-life Florida version of the TV series Weeds.
It's a late weekday afternoon when I pull into the driveway of 12507 Groveland St. The three-bedroom tan house sits abandoned, ragged. But inside, the house is surprisingly clean, except for patches of soil on the white tile floor.
Authorities raided this home back in November, too, after the local power company discovered growers were stealing electricity. They found 279 plants inside, some as large as Christmas trees.
"It's a nice neighborhood," insists a neighbor, a New York native who moved in last month, "but you never know who is next door, you know?"
Five miles away, past a high school and two churches, on curvy Deltona Avenue, sits another empty house busted in November. It's a bright white house with brown trim and a well-maintained lawn. The backyard overlooks a wide field.
"I remember driving to work one day and seeing all kinds of black coats and DEA jackets around [the house]," says Hernando County Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who lives a mile away. "It's not something you normally see in the neighborhood."
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum is the most vocal advocate behind two state bills targeting grow houses. The legislation would reduce the minimum number of plants needed to prove a felony trafficking charge from 300 to 25.
"The drug is so lucrative that grow houses are popping up in some of the most affluent neighborhoods in the state," McCollum wrote in a November Orlando Sentinel editorial. He dubbed these suburban grow houses "Marijuana McMansions."
That term would seem to fit 7660 Jomel Drive, a stately 3,100-square-foot home on an acre of land on the outskirts of Spring Hill. Last month, Hernando County Sheriff's Office deputies arrested owner Johnny Wallace after finding 127 marijuana plants and $13,000 in cash inside the home. Dubbed "Operation Long Leaf," the bust led deputies to five other grow houses in the county, including one in a gated community up the road. They confiscated over $3 million in cash and assets from the homes.
Money and assets taken from grow houses end up in county coffers, helping to defer the cost of the raids. Florida's Marijuana Eradication Program is also funded by the DEA. Last year, the state received $200,000 to combat indoor grow houses.
Back on Weldon Avenue, I chat with Louis Ortiz, who lived next door to the grow house here for nearly a year before agents raided it.
"They were such good neighbors," says the elderly Puerto Rican. "Sometimes, they brought me food. They always said, 'Hello.' They were polite. They weren't like criminals."
He glances at the former drug house, weeds beginning to overtake the front porch.
"They were average people, doing the wrong thing," he says. "It's the economy, I think."