Underground grow house found

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Two charged with cultivating marijuana

By Lou Elliott Jones, Editor

An elaborate underground pot-growing operation that even had its own 100 kilowatt electrical generator has been put out of business and two persons arrested by the Levy County Multi-Jurisdictional Task Force and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Capt. Evan Sullivan of the Levy County Sheriff’s Office said the operation at 3651 N.E. 140th Ave. in Williston has been under investigation since shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in September 2005. And it is likely to lead beyond Levy County’s borders as the marijuana harvested was shipped out of county.

The investigation began when deputies and firefighters responded to a 911 call about a fire at the property, Sullivan said. At that time, the man was burning the materials inside several cargo containers.

He told officers that he was intending to bury the containers to use as a hurricane shelter. “At that time we had seen evidence with possible leads that we believed an indoor grow was here or going to be on the property,” Sullivan said.

The incident was reported to the state Department of Environmental Protection and the man was told he could not bury the cargo containers, Sullivan said.

The man, William Diaz, 47, of Gainesville has been charged with cultivation of marijuana, however, Sullivan said, “We believe him to be another person.”

A woman who has been booked as a Jane Doe, 33, has been charged with possession of cocaine, possession of a controlled substance without a prescription, possession of paraphernalia, possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana and obtaining driver licenses in two different names.

Sullivan said the woman gave her name as Marisa Peri Bershad, but there is no record of such a person. He said the officers also found several passports during the arrest and cleanup.

The actual pot-growing operation was discovered when officers went out on a “knock-and-talk” with Morales and found him in the barn on the property, exiting a trap door hidden under hay.

The trap door had hay glued to the top to help it blend in with the hay spread on the floor of the barn.

Sullivan said officers obtained Morales’ permission to examine what was below the door and 10 feet under they found a 30 by 50 foot bunker.

The stairway into the bunker led past the 100 kw electrical generator into a room with growing materials and on to an electrical room that was a mass of wiring for the pumps to keep pumps, lights, humidifiers, air conditioning and other electrical appliances needed in the operation.

The plants were grown in 5-gallon plastic buckets in 60-degree, humidity-controlled rooms lined with foil. Digital gauges kept watch on the nutrient mixture and lights for the hydroponic growing operation. There were several blenders to mix up the chemicals stored on metal shelving that ran from floor to ceiling. Pumps in the floor continually circulated the water to the plants.

The whole bunker was built using large steel I-beams in the ceiling and walls. The air intake for the bunker was piped from an air conditioning unit located between the barn and a shed. The exhaust for the diesel generator was piped beyond the AC unit and under the concrete pad of the shed.

“This is the first of an underground indoor grow that we have seen in Levy County,” Sullivan said.

He said that even though they found the diesel-fueled generator, the size of one used by the Chiefland police department in emergencies, the operation had been siphoning power from the electrical line in the area.

“This door, it had hay inside the barn in a stall,” Sullivan said. “…It was something you could miss very easily.”

He said there was nothing unusual about the old metal-sided pole barn sitting atop the bunker. “It looks like hundreds in the county.” Goats grazed in a fenced-in area next to the barn.

“The old adage that all things do not appear as they really are certainly true with this old barn,” Sullivan said. “If these walls could talk, it would tell us of this elaborate, sophisticated hydroponic indoor grow.”

Sullivan said,” It’s an old cheap metal barn, but a very unique barn.”

He said the barn has been there for many years, but officers did not have a definite idea of how long the growing operation had been in place or how Diaz had accomplished its construction.

As law enforcement authorities spent Tuesday dismantling the operation and removing the equipment, Sullivan said the investigation is continuing.

He said officers are going through the two houses on the property and another shed to see if there are false walls or compartments.