Two narcotics officers with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office spoke about the changing and ever-dangerous world of illegal drugs at the Thursday, Sept. 25 meeting of the Loxahatchee Groves Landowners’ Association.
PBSO Lt. Dennis St. Cyr, joined by longtime Narcotics Division Agent Aron Vento, said his team had raided four marijuana grow houses that morning in a trailer park.
“Just when you thought marijuana grows were the worst thing that could happen, we now have other labs, meth labs, that we’re starting to see in the county,” St. Cyr said. “They are even worse than marijuana grows. We have not seen any out here yet, but it’s a matter of time.”
In the past, most of the marijuana grow houses were in rural areas, such as Loxahatchee Groves.
“What we’re seeing now, the trend is they’re moving into mobile homes,” he said. “The four search warrants that we did this morning were all in the same mobile home park.”
St. Cyr said the trend is toward mobile homes now because before the housing downturn, buyers did not have to prove their income.
“These guys were snatching up homes left and right,” he said. “It wasn’t costing them anything because they had nothing invested in it. They had no problem turning a huge, four-bedroom house into a grow house. Now that everything has tightened up, it’s not cost-effective for them to rent or purchase a four-bedroom house.”
Vento, a Loxahatchee resident who teaches officers throughout the state about grow houses, said he did not want to debate whether marijuana should be legal but, rather, to focus on the criminal aspects and repercussions of grow houses on communities.
“Things have changed over the years. I’ve spent the last 14 years undercover, and I actually started hitting grow houses in 2001 out here,” Vento said.
As a road patrol deputy in the mid-1990s, he remembers being assigned to the midnight shift.
“There were no lights,” he said. “I remember driving, and I hear gunshots. It was a change for me. I’m from Boynton, so it’s a little different, but I’ve always said, ‘This place is awesome. I want to live out here one day.’”
His early experiences with grow houses were more random responses from neighbors’ complaints.
“We weren’t actually investigating,” Vento said. “We were actually getting called out to them because they would either catch on fire or a burglary happened and somebody called it in, and it ended up not being a burglary, but a home invasion.”
At the time, seeing large homes converted to grow houses was an anomaly.
“They were four- and five-bedroom homes, beautiful, and you go inside and the walls are gone,” he said. “The whole inside is destroyed, the concrete is chipped out and there’s piping running all over the place.”
After investigating, they came to realize that organized outside groups were responsible.
“It wasn’t your guy from the 1960s growing four or five plants in his closet,” Vento said. “It was a business, and throughout the years, starting in 2003, we started seeing big organizations out here. It was like an invasion.”
In 2006, he started working the organized crime unit, which raided 30 grow houses in Loxahatchee owned by the same person. “The guy had no ties to this community,” he said. “He was from Miami, he had no job, but he had 33 houses here. We shut him down. It took us over a year, but we did it.”
Before the PBSO intervened, the grower was making more than $500,000 annually per house.
Over the course of his career, Vento has traveled to Washington, D.C., and spoken with national drug czars about drug trends.
“It’s not just your guy growing it in his back yard,” he said, explaining that backyard plants have only 2 percent to 3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content, and the grow-house plants can be as high as 30 or 40 percent.
“With these edibles and the liquid THC, the hash oils and honey oils, we’re seeing 80, 90, almost 100 percent pure THC,” he said, adding that some users “are actually being hospitalized because that euphoric effect is serious.”
What really upset him was that the growers were buying houses with little or no financial encumbrance and destroying them.
“I started subpoenaing the mortgage documents for these guys,” Vento said. “I wanted to find out how they got three homes in Loxahatchee or in The Acreage? They have no jobs, they’ve never had employment.”
Home invasions on grow houses by competing gangs are also a big issue, he said, explaining that one grower he interviewed was home with his wife and 8-month-old baby when armed men dressed as narcotics officers invaded his home.
“They had his wife with a pillow on her head on the ground, they had the baby with a gun,” he said. “All they were asking is, ‘Where is the money? Where is the marijuana?’”
The invaders found no money and only small marijuana plants, but they ransacked the house and took jewelry and phones. “That was just one,” Vento said. “I can’t tell you how many other people we’ve interviewed.”
On the meth lab team with St. Cyr, Vento has testified to get state laws enhanced to include making it a first-degree felony if a child is found living in a drug lab, and the ability to charge renters with possession of a home that manufactures controlled substances.
Vento has also worked with code enforcement officials to inform them how to recognize a possible drug lab. Common signs that a home is being used for that purpose include unkempt yards, people who seldom come around, lawn equipment or furniture that is left outside and extra air-conditioning units added to the house. Other signals include heavy iron grating or entryways that have been sealed off, and accumulations of trash that may contain lab waste and drug paraphernalia.
“They don’t want to put trash out because they know we’re driving around looking at it,” Vento said. “You’ll see piles and piles of trash, and guess where all of that stuff ends up? Right here in Loxahatchee. I go down a road and all I see is garbage bags piled up. I don’t even need to see what’s in it. Nobody who lives out here takes their garbage and throws it out on the side of the road in the canal.”
The biological and chemical hazards, including mold spores and gases, are dangerous to children and anyone else living in the drug-lab houses, as well as to narcotic teams that raid them, which has led to stepped-up protective equipment for those officers.
St. Cyr said that methamphetamine and other synthetic drug labs are the latest issue the narcotics teams are starting to address.
“Locally, about 18 months ago, we saw our first meth lab,” he said. “In the western parts of the country, they’ve been dealing with this for two decades.”
The PBSO has created a drug lab enforcement team, but it has been very expensive to maintain because the operators generally do not have a lot of equipment or money, where seizure of grow houses and property nets the department some operating funds.
“Fortunately, I’ve been able to get some money through grants, so it isn’t costing taxpayers that much,” St. Cyr said. “However, it takes a substantial amount of manpower to do these labs.”
There is also the high cost of equipment for narcotics teams, including protective suits and breathing equipment.
The team covers drug labs from Martin County to Key West. St. Cyr has four officers on the team but recently sent 25 more through an education program.
Most of the equipment they have has been handed down to them. “Hand-me-downs are great, but this is an up-and-coming problem, and I really need some new equipment,” he said, explaining that theirs is the only team in South Florida, and most of the labs they have raided have been in cities that do not have the equipment they need for enforcement.
St. Cyr’s presentation was a preview of one he will make next month to the Law Enforcement Planning Council, made up of chiefs of police from most municipalities in the region. “The point of this presentation is to say, ‘Listen, we need some help; we need to get some guys on my team,’” he said.