Staff photos: Erin Evans. Marijuana plants of all sizes were piled knee-high outside one of the outbuildings on the property at 531 King Bostwick Road as deputies and drug agents dismantled a huge grow house operation Tuesday afternoon. The odor was overpowering.
COVINGTON -- A routine traffic stop has yielded more than 1,000 marijuana plants in all stages of growth at a south Newton County home.
Tuesday afternoon Newton County Sheriff's Office deputies and agents with the Covington/Newton County Special Investigations Unit and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency were dismantling what is known as a "grow house" at 531 King Bostwick Road. So far, they have identified in excess of 1,100 plants and are still counting. They range in size from tiny bedding plants to bushes that are 5 feet tall. The pungent odor permeates the area.
"This all came out of a traffic stop early Sunday morning. One of the uniform deputies stopped a car on Henderson Mill Road at Highway 36 and during the traffic stop found about 4 pounds of marijuana," said Criminal Investigations Division Captain Marty Roberts.
The 4-pound seizure is considered to be quite a bit of contraband and came to the attention of the SIU team.
"An agent with SIU looked at it and realized it had been fresh picked," Roberts said. "It wasn't in a compressed state."
From there an investigation began. The suspect who had been stopped was from South Carolina, but information was developed which led to the secluded house on the unpaved King Bostwick Road.
"Investigators came to the house Monday after following up on some information they had received and did a 'knock and talk' on the house," Roberts said. "Officers could smell it when they came down the driveway."
A search warrant was issued and the mass of growing plants was found inside the home and in two large outbuildings. There were two men found at the house who were arrested.
"We're still not sure of their identity. They appear to be from Guatemala as best we can tell right now," Roberts said, adding that they are still seeking the homeowner and any others who might be involved in the operation. "It looks like it went on 24 hours a day. They were harvesting around the clock, with plants in all stages."
All grow locations included an elaborate electrical system with temperature control, grow lights and an irrigation system. Thousands of pellets about the size of acorns were used to fertilize and keep the plants moist.
Roberts said the investigation still has a long way to go, but investigators believe the operators of the grow house were distributing quantities of marijuana from the site. They have not discovered any small amounts packaged for sale.
"They were distributing it from here, but we're not sure how they were doing it," he said.
Representatives from Snapping Shoals EMC were on the scene investigating the theft of electrical power. Investigators found three large transformers in a wooded area adjacent to the house that were connected to a power pole.
"It's set up so that we would never know anything was going on. They bypassed everything and tapped straight into our main line. There's no way we would have known," said Don Ritchey of Snapping Shoals EMC. "The only way we would have known would be to pull down here and see what they'd put up the pole and we'd know it wasn't ours. But way off down here ... we don't read meters anymore, so we don't go house to house."
Ritchey said whoever tapped into the main power line was doubtless in that line of work.
"It was somebody very professional as far as the line work side of it. Inside, you could get an electrician to do it. But outside, it had to be somebody who's got experience with line work and somebody who's got ties to a power company somewhere."
Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown praised the efforts of his officers.
"We have a very aggressive force that makes good and effective traffic stops," he said. "This is all about good patrolling technique. ... We want to put those on notice who are thinking about setting up shop in Newton County that we're doing everything humanly possible and within the limits of the law to keep all such activities out of our county."
Brown said the magnitude and sophistication of the grow house operation was stunning.
"It is certainly the largest grow house that I've ever encountered. It's the biggest in Newton County history, and I wouldn't be afraid to say it is probably the largest on a state level. I don't believe there have been any others as sophisticated as this," he said.
Brown said the decision was made to call in the DEA during the dismantling of the operation because it was so big.
"There were a number of health factors, as well as with the electrical and plumbing, there was a high risk of somebody being injured," he said.