When Stevie emerged from prison in the late '90s, he was a changed man: more wary, alert, and even more protective of his loved ones. He drifted from jobs at one fly-by-night auto body shop to the next, friends say. His parents had retired to a well-manicured development in unincorporated Boynton Beach, and Stevie eventually followed them in 2003. He tried to make an honest living fixing cars, but when the economy soured, he had trouble making even enough to pay his auto insurance bills. He worked hard, enduring long hours in blistering heat in shops with no AC. He kept a T-shirt in the freezer, and he put on a frozen shirt every hour or so to keep cool. He supported his girlfriend, Annmarie, and her three kids, who adored him, and he remained protective of his friend Michael Pampillonia, who had also moved down from Peabody and lived across the street.

"Stevie got up every day and went to work at 6 a.m.," Pampillonia says. "He knew more about cars than anyone else I've ever met. He could fix anything. During a hurricane one time, I saw him figure out a way to power a generator by hooking it up to a car's gas tank. But the thing about Stevie was, he always made you feel safe. He was like a big brother to me; even my parents loved him. You could be anywhere, like at a restaurant, and you'd get up to go to the bathroom and he'd be watching you, watching out for you."

While Stevie was working at Consumer's Auto Collision in Boynton Beach, he met Jose Alfaro, a slight, dark-haired man in his early 20s with doe eyes and a mischievous grin. Alfaro drove fast cars and flashed rolls of cash: He lived luxuriously and partied hard, speeding along the beach on wave runners, drag-racing his friends down the highways on speed bikes. Friends say he always talked tough, but they never took it too seriously. "It was like he'd been watching a lot of crime movies," Pampillonia says.

"He seemed like a nice kid," Eddie Febonio says. "Stevie would bring Jose home for lunch, and my wife would make them sandwiches. We had no idea what he would turn out to be. We never knew how vicious he was."

Although he seemed like a good-time guy, Alfaro was sinking deeper into an underworld where every friend was a potential enemy and where enormous sums of cash could be made and lost. It was a place where a young guy like Alfaro, who'd never developed a talent for much beyond spray-painting cars, could become a high-roller. He still worked at Consumer's Auto now and then when he needed quick money. But according to witness affidavits, he was far more interested in the lucrative marijuana grow business.

The price of marijuana had taken off in the last decade; Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum often repeated that a pound of hydroponically grown pot had risen to the same street value as a pound of cocaine. Witnesses told police that Alfaro had three or four grow houses operating at any given time; he'd raise plants in the garage of the Parkland home he shared with his girlfriend, Courtney Deutsch, and he would talk friends into renting other houses nearby, for which he'd supply the rent money if they would turn on the power in their own names and keep an eye on a hundred or so plants for him. When he needed cash to buy equipment or to set up a new operation, he persuaded his pals to invest, promising a percentage of the final sale when the crop was ready.

Alfaro's alleged grow house operations were part of a burgeoning crop in Florida. Last year, law enforcement found more than 1,000 grow houses in the state, an increase of more than 50 percent in less than four years.

Advances in hydroponic growing techniques were yielding bigger plants, some containing up to 25 percent THC, the psychoactive substance in a marijuana bud that produces the buzz when ingested. A single large plant may yield up to a pound. The plants Jones was tending at Alfaro's alleged grow house in Parkland would have had an astonishing street value: well over $600,000.

As growers got smarter, so did the DEA, says criminal defense lawyer Andrew Stine, whose West Palm Beach law firm specializes in defending drug crimes. The feds stake out hydroponic stores. They monitor garbage. Although it can't be used as evidence in court, they gather information by flying over neighborhoods with heat-seeking sensors. "The feds and state government will look at power usage," Stine says. "But a lot of times, the growers will get smart and try to steal power from another location, like from a neighbor." Or, like Special Agent Boyle, they peruse the property up-close. "The smell of so many plants is extremely pungent," Stine adds. "You can smell it from well outside the house."

It was a smell Stevie Febonio got used to in the months he spent helping to tend Alfaro's plants, according to court documents. By April 2007, Stevie and Jose Alfaro had grown close. They were roommates for a while. Alfaro joined Stevie and his parents for Thanksgiving dinner. He'd hired Stevie to install drywall and lighting at one of his Parkland grow houses, promising payment when the crop matured. Stevie moved into the newly refurbished grow house with Alfaro's friend Justin Jones in the summer of 2007, the very house Boyle had under surveillance in those same months.

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