By Tamas Mondovics

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO), working with local and statewide law enforcement agencies, announced earlier this month the conclusion and results of a second lengthy investigation targeting individuals and criminal organizations.

Joined by Hillsborough County State Attorney and his staff, Sheriff David Gee announced the outcome of a year-long, statewide narcotics investigation, coined by the department “Operation Hydro Hustlers,” which busted a major drug growing ring.

Gee said that the investigation began in March of 2015, netting 22 arrests while it revealed 10 grow houses, eight of which were in Hillsborough County.

“We began to notice violent trends and crime involving these houses during the past couple of years, including offenses that ranged from murders, home invasions and many other crimes that we are not aware of as they are not reported to law enforcement,” Gee said.

Gee added that the most concerning element of such grow houses is that they are operating in regular neighborhoods as area residents may not even realize that they are potentially in danger.

“Some of these grow houses were located next door to a school and a daycare center,” Gee said. “Most of the crimes are the results of these individuals robbing each other, stealing each-other’s drugs, and money. Such violence can certainly spill over to hard working citizens living within the community and trying to build their lives.”

Members of these drug-growing organizations, such as ringleader Julio Alvarez who reportedly moved to the area from Miami, would rent homes and then turn them into a facility supplying them with grow-specific equipment suitable for growing, cultivating and harvesting Marijuana plants.

“These are very dangerous people,” Gee said and added that average cost to set up a grow house operation, can reach $15-20,000, which includes the purchase and use of various equipment, such as added air-conditioning, electrical boards, high-grade potting soil, just to name a few, often paid for by fraudulent credit cards.

Gee emphasized that the drugs and drug trades have always been at the core of violent crime.

As the investigation was nearing its conclusion, HCSO deputies began to serve search warrants which resulted in the seizing of 591 marijuana plants weighing 872 pounds. Also seized were 46.67 pounds of processed or packaged marijuana with a value of $2.3 million.

The operation also seized $123,000 in cash, 21 cars, two trailers, one boat, two zero turn mowers, with a value of more than $400,000.

State attorney Mark Ober added that Operation Hydro Hustlers broke up a well defined criminal organization.

“The maximum penalty on some of these particular cases is 30 years,” Ober said. “As we go through this process, we will see if any of these individuals qualify for enhanced penalties.”

Concluding the announcement, Gee thanked all the men and women who took the task on and worked undercover to make these cases and make the community and the neighborhoods involved safer. For more information about the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, visit www.hcso.tampa.fl.us.