08/17/2007

25 indicted in Ga. for $50 million pot-growing operation

By Jeffry Scott
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. A seven-month investigation into a marijuana-growing enterprise rooted in the basements of dozens of upscale suburban Atlanta homes has yielded federal indictments against 25 people and a catchy name for the dope business --- "Hooked on Ponics."

The name, coined by investigators, is a reference to the "hydroponic" pot grown in homes scattered across 14 metro counties, officials said Tuesday at a press conference. They said it produced about 11,000 pounds of highly potent pot that sold for $5,000 a pound.

"We estimate it's worth about $50 million," said Jack Killorin, director of the Atlanta High Intensity Drug Trafficing Area Task Force, which coordinated the investigation.

The case began last February, when Forsyth County deputies chased down a tip from the Drug Enforcement Administration in Miami that a master pot grower was operating in Atlanta.

In a matter of weeks, investigators found marijuana farms in about 35 homes, all connected to the alleged kingpins of the operation, Merquiades Martinez, 36, and Blanca Botello, 35, a married couple from Fayetteville.

Botello allegedly arranged real estate deals for homes used in the operation. Merquiades, according to the indictment, oversaw the growing of the marijuana, basing his operation at a Fayetteville garden supply store.

Killorin said the operation required elaborate heating and air-conditioning, as well as lighting and irrigation systems and stolen electricity. The result was four crops a year of pot twice as potent as marijuana grown outdoors, officials said.

"This is pretty clearly a case of organized crime in suburbia," Killorin said.

Copyright 2007 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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