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Electricity theft and grow houses go hand in hand

BRANDON – April 12, 2016 – A house fire in Brandon this week illustrates the dangers of living next to a grow house and the cost associated with the crime.
An illegal electrical connection that provided unmetered electricity caused the recent fire at 906 Homewood Drive, and Tampa Electric Co. (TECO) officials discovered the theft of an estimated $8,745 in electricity, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said.
While no one was home when the fire started on Monday, sheriff’s deputies seized about 270 pounds of pot worth about $540,000, authorities said. It was the 16th marijuana grow house to be eradicated in Hillsborough this year.
TECO spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs declined to elaborate on the electricity thieves’ power-pilfering methods, but she characterized it as a hazardous endeavor.
“What these folks are doing is extremely dangerous,” Jacobs said. “The fact that they’re not dying while they do this implies that they have some working knowledge” of electrical systems.
TECO is affected by about 100 cases of electricity theft every month, Jacobs said, and about 5 percent of those cases involve marijuana grow houses. Electricity theft makes up 2-4 percent of industry revenues.
“The number of cases has pretty much held steady every year,” she said. “It hasn’t gone markedly up or down. Grow houses are literally in every type of neighborhood. And sometimes in places you’d least expect.”
While the average power bill for a residential home is about $110 a month, a typical grow house steals $2,000 to $3,000 worth of electricity, although larger operations could pilfer as much as $15,000 monthly, Jacobs said.
TECO seeks retribution from those caught stealing power, but Jacobs said that only about one-in-four “bad guys” make good.
“The rest is absorbed by our customer base,” she said.
When deputies responded to the Brandon fire just after 10:20 p.m. Monday, it was partially engulfed in flames, authorities said. Inside, deputies said they found two rooms that had been converted for marijuana cultivation.
Deputies also found weed-growing equipment and 31 mature marijuana plants, the sheriff’s office said.
The house that caught fire Monday was not part of a highly organized syndicate of marijuana grow houses busted last month in Hillsborough, Hernando, and Suwanee counties, sheriff’s spokesman Larry McKinnon said. That bust netted 800 pounds of high-grade pot with a street value of $2.5 million.
McKinnon implored people to report suspected grow houses to law enforcement or Crime Stoppers.
“The vast majority of neighbors out there always suspect something,” McKinnon said. “If you do see something, call us. Most of these investigations are initiated by a complaint.”
Some potential signs of a grow house include lots of traffic coming and leaving the property, he said, and windows are often “blacked out” or covered with aluminum foil so that lights from heating lamps won’t be seen.
“They’re easily recognized,” McKinnon said. “People in their neighborhood generally know who comes and goes. We get calls all the time about people coming and going from houses. Some are unfounded, but a lot of them aren’t. If you don’t feel right about it, call us. If something seems out of place or (out of the ordinary) in your mind, call us.”
Copyright © 2016 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.), Geoff Fox. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.  
Source: Florida Realtors Feed

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