Pot operation comes to light


Published: Wednesday, October 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, September 30, 2003 at 11:29 p.m.
TRENTON - A wildlife officer who thought he was on a trail of some night hunters instead shut down an out-of-the-way marijuana-growing operation Monday.
The setup consisted of marijuana plants in large containers on stakes driven into chest-deep swamp waters.
Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Officer Dan Talley was patrolling on private property after sunset Monday in the middle of Gilchrist County east of State Road 47 when he saw people using flashlights.
Talley said he then saw two men walk past him, put a pair of duffel bags in the bed of a pickup, and then drive away with another man.
When Talley pulled the truck over a few miles away, he found about 5 gallons worth of marijuana buds.
"The initial story from all three of the guys was that they were here to find a tree stand they left behind eight years ago when they were members of a hunting club on that property," commission Lt. Roy Williams said. "They said that they stumbled on a marijuana plant and cut the buds off of it thinking it would be a way to make some money."
Investigators called in a canine tracking unit from Cross City Correctional Institution that led them through a heavily wooded property leading to a swamp with water more than 4 feet deep.
"We found an elaborate system of 40-gallon pots on stakes that had been driven into the swamp - it was almost like a hydroponic setup," Williams said.
The pots were on top of the stakes at varying heights raising them out of the water.
"It looked like they had been doing this for about five years because of the sawed-off cypress knees that were coming back and things like that," said Williams, indicating that some of the cypress trunks could have been used to hold up the pots.
Talley, Williams and officers Jeff Swan and Brian Humphries, along with about a dozen deputies, spent most of Tuesday in chest-deep water removing 23 heavy pots that contained 51 mature plants. The officers said the pots were all within about 50 yards of each other and were growing in an area so dark from the overgrowth that it was hard to see anything except in the tiny section cleared out to allow some sunshine to reach the plants.
"Without a doubt, this is the most obscure operation I've seen," Williams said.
Near the potted plants was a tussock where pesticide, potting soil and other plant-growing related items were stored under a camouflage tarp.
Gilchrist County Sheriff David Turner estimated the retail value of the marijuana seized at more than $100,000.
Those charged were identified by the Sheriff's Office as John N. Hardee, 56, of Trilby, a grove worker; Layern T. Hart, 59, of Dade City; and Hart's son, Tonoah A. Hart, 39, of Dade City, a taxidermist.
All three men were free on bond Tuesday evening after being charged with possession of more than 20 grams of marijuana. Additional charges are expected to be filed against the men within a few days.
Karen Voyles can be reached at (352) 486-5058 or voylesk@gvillesun.com.

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