Pot Grow Houses in Florida Are Deadly Business | Feature | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida


Pot Grow Houses in Florida Are Deadly Business

On July 12, 2007, Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Timothy Boyle was parked outside a hydroponic supply business in South Florida when a green Ford Mustang pulled into the parking lot. Twenty-four-year-old Justin Jones got out of the car and went inside. When he came out, Jones carried a long white box. Boyle took down the Mustang's license plate number, went back to the office, and subpoenaed Florida Power & Light to find out if Jones was a subscriber. Boyle learned that Jones paid the electric bill at a half-million-dollar house in a Parkland gated community called Heron Bay. The house was leased in the name of Jose Alfaro. It was likely, Boyle figured, that Jones was buying lighting and chemical supplies for a marijuana grow house.

Boyle kept an eye on Jones for the rest of the summer. He watched him make more trips to the hydroponic store. He waited for Jones to put trash outside his house on pickup days, but whatever garbage Jones was accumulating, it wasn't going out to the curb. On the last day of August, Boyle and BSO detective Dustin Thompson used a drug detection dog named Boomer to sniff around the outside of the house. Boomer indicated that he smelled pot on the south side of the house. Thompson and Boyle smelled it too.

Then on September 5, Boyle spotted a heavy-duty black plastic bag bound with electrical tape by the curb in front of the house next door. Boyle knew that if Jones was running a marijuana grow house, he was either going to throw his trash in a Dumpster or try to pawn it off on a neighbor. So Boyle snatched the bag. According to a probable-cause affidavit he filed later, when he opened it, he found marijuana clippings and bills in Jones' name. A crumpled note warned that the grow house was being watched by the cops. A scrap of paper listed hydroponic equipment, a feeding schedule, and cultivation instructions. For a DEA agent, it didn't get much better.

But there was something else inside that Mediterranean-style Heron Bay bungalow that Special Agent Timothy Boyle couldn't have imagined. A few days before, Jones had helped someone move a four-by-four-foot freezer into the garage. The freezer was belted closed, and Jones had been told it was full of "deer meat." But inside the freezer, wrapped in a sheet and black tarp and bound by duct tape, was the body of 45-year-old Stevie Febonio.

It would be two years before Febonio's partially decomposed corpse would be discovered inside that freezer, and by that time, it had been moved again and again, across two counties. The search for his body and his killer would occupy a half-dozen agencies. It would also become a full-time affair for Febonio's father, himself a retired police officer.

The investigation would draw into its net a bizarre cast of characters: small-time hoodlums, drug dealers, police informants, unsuspecting or partially complicit parents, stubbornly loyal girlfriends, and a few not-so-loyal exes, most of them involved in the lucrative underground business of growing and selling marijuana in South Florida.

Peabody, Massachusetts, in the North Shore area outside Boston, was a rough place to grow up in the mid-'70s. The neighborhood where Stevie Febonio and his younger brother, Bryan, lived with father Edwin and mother Margaret was working-class, populated by Irish and Italian Catholics who attended the nearby St. Ann's Church for Sunday Mass. Friends of Stevie's and Bryan's from Brown Elementary and Peabody Veterans Memorial High remember Eddie and Margaret's house as their home away from home, a place of noisy family dinners where jovial arguments would erupt until Eddie banged his fist on the table and told them to knock it off. Margaret was a second mother to many of the boys; she gave them advice about girls, soothing their broken hearts and bruised egos. Stevie's father — his friends called him "Elfie" — was a well-liked inspector on the Peabody police force.

One of Stevie's best friends was Michael Rose; they met when their two brothers got into a schoolyard dustup. "Mr. and Mrs. Febonio were more like my parents than my own parents were," Rose remembers. "They were beautiful people."

The Febonio boys grew up tough, defending each other in fights, fiercely protective of their friends, rarely backing down from a challenge. Rose, who says Stevie was his best friend, can't talk about Febonio now without weeping. "Stevie was a tough kid," Rose says. And he grew up to be "an unbelievably powerful person." At five-foot-nine and 200 pounds, the sandy-haired Febonio had strong Italian features: a well-muscled torso, a Roman nose, a closely cropped goatee. Says Rose: "He wouldn't take shit from nobody. If you were his friend, he would defend you. He was always helping you out. He always worked, he had the nicest clothes, the nicest cars, the most beautiful girlfriends."

But "Peabody was a crazy little town," Rose adds. "It was easy to hook up with the wrong person."

The Febonio brothers did just that, befriending petty criminals and police informants, becoming entangled with federal agents. In his early 30s, Stevie served almost seven years for trafficking cocaine; friends claim the DEA busted him during his first delivery. Bryan was convicted of assault and battery; as a felon, he later attempted to sell a Colt Python .357 to an undercover federal agent. Just last year, only recently out of prison, Bryan robbed a bank at gunpoint. Both young men struggled with addictions.

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.

Jones told Stevie he expected Alfaro to pay him about $20,000 for tending plants at the house. Stevie himself was expecting payment for the construction work he'd done on the place. But Alfaro stalled. According to witnesses, he used all his ready cash to put a $32,000 down payment on a house he'd bought for Courtney in the same neighborhood. Within a couple of months, Stevie was pissed off with Alfaro's excuses and delays. Stevie moved back in with his parents, telling friends he'd had enough of the grow business. Annmarie had broken up with him over his friendship with Jose: She'd never liked Alfaro. Alfaro later told Jones he'd kicked Stevie out because he was smoking crack.

The last time Eddie and Margaret Febonio saw Stevie was August 24. That afternoon, Stevie gave his father an ominous warning: "If I don't come back for a couple of days, go to my room and see the note I left." Later that afternoon, Alfaro came by the house to pick up Stevie. Thinking of his son's warning, Eddie's training as a detective took over, and he paid close attention to the details. Alfaro drove a red Acura. Stevie wore a green striped shirt and a pair of khaki shorts.

When his son didn't come home, Eddie called his cell phone; it went straight to voice-mail. He contacted friends, like Michael Pampillonia, looking for his son. He called Jose Alfaro. Alfaro never returned his calls.

Eddie Febonio filed a missing persons report ten days later, on September 4. By this time, Eddie had found the note Stevie had mentioned on his way out the door. According to police reports and friends, the note said that Stevie felt he was in danger from Alfaro. It gave the address of the grow house in Parkland.

A week after Eddie filed a missing persons report, on September 11, DEA agent Boyle showed up at the Parkland grow house he had been watching all summer, search warrant in hand. The agents knocked and entered just in time to see Jones fleeing out a sliding glass door at the back of the house. The DEA arrested Jones on charges of possession with intent to distribute more than 100 marijuana plants. Jones told police he was just renting a room there. Agents found 125 plants in the house, plus 60 clones growing in a closet. In Jones' Mustang, they scooped up a Tupperware container of weed.

Jones faced up to 40 years in federal prison on the grow house charges. But in March 2008, U.S. District Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks sentenced Jones to the six months he had already served. He paid a $100 fine and walked.

Jose Alfaro, meanwhile, was still free.

On September 27, 2007, a little over a month after Stevie Febonio disappeared, Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office Detective Sean Oliver followed up on Febonio's missing persons report. Oliver interviewed friends and family. And he got in touch with Kevin Perez, who had left a cell phone message for Febonio on the day he disappeared.

Perez had been closely involved with Alfaro's grow house business, he admitted to Oliver. He told the detective that he was now afraid for his life and that "he didn't want these people to come after him."

Perez remembered that the last time he had seen Stevie was when he had stopped by to borrow money. He guessed that Stevie might have been on a crack binge. He also told Oliver that Stevie and Alfaro had a disagreement: Alfaro was stalling on paying for the drywall Stevie had put up.

Perez, the detective learned, had been the person who warned Justin Jones that the Parkland grow house was being watched by DEA agents. He too had loaned Alfaro money to set up the grow house — Alfaro promised him a return of $25,000. Alfaro had finally paid him back with about $4,000 worth of pot. Talking to Oliver, Perez was nervous, his emotions close to the surface. He blurted out that Alfaro had once boasted that the best way to get rid of a body was to cut it up and put it in a freezer. He remembered he'd seen a freezer in the garage of the Parkland grow house. When Oliver showed him a picture of Stevie, Perez broke down in tears and begged the detective to put the photo away.

A week later, Oliver interviewed Justin Jones. He too said he was scared. He told the detective that Alfaro owned an AK-47. "I don't want to become missing," he said.

When Oliver caught up with Alfaro the next day at the Parkland house he shared with Courtney, Alfaro told the detective that Stevie had "a history of disappearing."

"Eddie Febonio has accused you of murdering his son," Oliver told him point-blank. Stevie, he said, had left a note with the addresses of the grow houses. Visibly agitated, Alfaro claimed he had dropped Stevie off at the gym the day he disappeared, just 15 minutes after he'd picked him up. Stevie was mixed up with "bad people," Alfaro added ominously. "He's not going to be walking through any doors."

Oliver thought it was weird that Alfaro referred to Stevie in the past tense. But the detective's hunches and the claims of some pretty shady characters didn't add up to grounds for an arrest.

In December 2007, Alfaro set up another grow house in Delray Beach, according to PBSO documents, which also indicate that the DEA had been seeking an indictment against Alfaro for the Parkland grow houses since at least October. And he seemed to be daring law enforcement to pin him down. Friends who'd known him for years said his personality had taken a dark turn. The high-spirited boy had morphed into something more ominous: He openly threatened violence to anyone who might be planning on "ratting him out."

Courtney was fed up with him too, and frightened. Alfaro had beaten her, she told Oliver, and she'd finally left him. Now she was willing to talk: He owned a .45-caliber Glock handgun. He'd once described a theoretical murder plan: If he ever killed Stevie, he'd chop up his friend's body and scatter the parts all over the city.

Oliver tracked Alfaro to the Delray grow house in May 2008. At the same time, the Delray Beach narcotics division was planning a raid on the house based on an informant's tip. But when Oliver and Delray cops showed up, Alfaro had fled again — evidently warned that the cops were closing in. When Oliver and Delray police arrived, all they found were stray pieces of equipment — rows of black buckets, empty boxes that had once held lights. And that telltale sweet-acrid smell.

Meanwhile, Alfaro flew to Maine. He spent time in Canada. Then in the fall of 2008, he headed back to Florida and started yet another grow house, this time scaled down to fit in the condo he'd rented in a gated complex in Deerfield Beach, according to court documents. He also had a couple of new aliases: Julian Kane and Philip Durante. In Durante's name, using a fake I.D. and fraudulent credit, he'd bought a new, white Infiniti for $32,000.

Coconut Creek police stopped Alfaro's Infiniti for a traffic infraction the night of October 30 and found a sheaf of false I.D.s. At the station, Alfaro confessed to stealing the identity of Philip Durante, an old childhood friend. He sneered at how easy it had been to get a fake driver's license at the bureau, boasting, "The bitch didn't even ask for I.D. when I told her I lost my license." Cops got a sample of Alfaro's DNA off a bag of peanuts he'd been tipping into his mouth. They found Canadian currency in his car. They turned up credit cards in the name of his aliases. And they found out he already had an active warrant for his arrest from Broward Sheriff's Office for grand theft auto.

Oliver had a chance to interview Alfaro briefly, hoping to learn more about the murder, but Alfaro responded that he "had nothing to say." He did tell Oliver that the detective's "vendetta" against him had "cost him about $100,000." As he was being transported to jail, according to Coconut Creek police records, Alfaro taunted the cops again and again, regaling them with the details of his grow houses. Broward Sheriff's Office records say BSO went over and picked up the eight pounds of pot and ten marijuana plants in Alfaro's condo. Coconut Creek police charged him with fraud, larceny, and grand theft auto.

But the pattern held: Authorities didn't have the muscle to hold him. A friend paid Alfaro's bond, and he was a free man again.

It wasn't until five months later, on March 6, 2009, that Oliver finally got a break. The FBI had called with a lead. A man named Zayd Awadallah claimed he knew that Alfaro had killed Febonio. Awadallah had told the FBI that Febonio wanted to get out of his partnership at the grow house. Febonio was insisting that Alfaro pay him $10,000 for the construction work he had done.

Awadallah told Oliver that he was talking in hopes the cops would go easy on him for a Broward County cocaine trafficking charge. Alfaro, he said, had confessed that he'd shot Stevie in the back of the head and stuffed his body into a General Electric freezer he'd bought at a BrandsMart in Deerfield Beach. The freezer, Awadallah said, had been kept at a house in Boca Raton. Awadallah said several people had seen the body in the freezer. The house had been burglarized, and when thieves opened the freezer, they found Febonio's corpse and fled, leaving the door open. When the homeowners and friends returned, they too had gotten an eyeful.

Alfaro was in Maine when he heard about the burglary, Awadallah said. Alfaro flew home in a hurry to move the freezer, with its 200-pound contents, yet again.

Five days later, the FBI learned that Alfaro had boarded a plane in Fort Lauderdale bound for Costa Rica. They called to tell Oliver that customs agents in Costa Rica had refused him entry and sent him back to the States. But sensing that his luck was running out in Florida, Alfaro was preparing to flee the state.

Court documents claim Alfaro had either confessed to or hinted at the murder to at least a half-dozen friends and girlfriends. One of those ex-girlfriends, Alisa Catoggio, was to become one of Oliver's best sources. She told Oliver that after she posted Alfaro's bond in Coconut Creek, as they were driving to Marco Island, Alfaro not only admitted killing Stevie but told her the gruesome details. Alfaro had driven Stevie to a construction site where he'd laid down a piece of black tarp in preparation for the murder. He'd told his friend he needed help getting supplies. While Stevie had his back turned in a corner of the garage, Alfaro shot him once in the back of the head. He left Febonio's body there, covering him with drywall until the next day. Then he came back with the freezer. He wrapped Stevie's body in the plastic tarp, shoved it into the freezer, and belted it closed. And he'd hidden the gun in the white Infiniti that Coconut Creek police arrested him in a year later. Laughing, Alfaro bragged to Catoggio about how the stupid cops had never found the weapon.

Alfaro planned to chop the body up and disperse the parts around the city, according to Catoggio. But for some reason, he never got around to it. Maybe he didn't have the stomach for it. He kept the freezer in the house he shared with Courtney for a while, but Courtney complained it smelled. From there, he'd moved it to the grow house he'd set up for Jones. At some point, presumably right before the DEA raid, he'd moved it again to the Boca Raton home where Jennifer and Roger Edge lived with their three young kids. When thieves inadvertently discovered the body, he'd finally moved the freezer to the house in Delray Beach and buried it in the garden. Catoggio told Oliver she was "tired of Alfaro's antics." She said he'd used too many people, involving his friends in a murder. She thought he should go to jail.

Catoggio suggested Alfaro may have had another motive for the murder besides money. He'd told her that Stevie had witnessed something terrible and that Alfaro had killed him as a last resort.

On March 16, 2009, an odd assortment of people gathered at 1200 NW 20th Ave. in Delray Beach. The house was another of the faceless, identical suburban homes Alfaro had used to grow pot: It was the same house he had packed up and left from in such a hurry just days before a scheduled drug raid. Oliver, two crime scene investigators, a dog named Piper, a K9 deputy, a couple of guys from Sisters Towing Co., the owner of the property, and employees of Delray Public Utilities were there. The investigators used ground-penetrating radar and a metal detector as they paced the fenced backyard, concentrating on an area of garden where yucca plants were flourishing.

The radar showed a defect in the ground below the surface, and Oliver used a shovel to dig. About eight inches down, he heard the clang of metal on metal. The dog Piper alerted to the scent of a cadaver. As deputies continued to dig, they realized that the freezer door had come partially open. By now, the scent of death was inescapable. Inside the freezer, wrapped in black plastic, was Febonio's body. He was wearing a white T-shirt and the tan Docker shorts he had left his parents' home in.

Two days after Oliver unearthed the freezer, the Broward Sheriff's Office finally issued a warrant for Alfaro. But it wasn't for murder. He'd failed to appear in court on the grand theft auto charge. And the Broward County State Attorney's Office was also charging him with manufacturing cannabis, a charge spokesman Ron Ishoy says the office is still pursuing. But by that time, Alfaro had left town.

On March 23, a BSO officer located Alfaro's white Infiniti at a used car lot in Tamarac. When service technicians removed the center console, they found a Glock .40-caliber handgun containing a Speer bullet.

The hunt for Alfaro became national news. A&E's show Manhunters featured it. The U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task force tracked Alfaro to Manhattan and then to Newburgh, New York. Each time marshals arrived at a new location, they'd learn that Alfaro had just slipped away, weeks or days ahead of them.

Then on August 25, 2009, almost exactly two years after Stevie Febonio disappeared, a U.S. marshal spotted Alfaro's mother's car in Newburgh. The agent followed her to a house that was no more than a shell, an empty two-story hulk of dangling wires, exposed insulation, and floorless rooms. Alfaro was holed up in the attic. When marshals stormed up the stairs, Alfaro fought so hard that they had to subdue him with a stun gun. On the way out, still kicking, he landed a blow on one of the Manhunters cameramen. Four months later, he was extradited back to Palm Beach County. This time, he stayed in jail.

Stevie called her his "Chicken Little." Now a pretty 40-something brunet, Annmarie Gallien met Stevie in 2003, and she moved from Boston to Florida to be with him. He helped her raise her three kids. He celebrated with her when she bought her first new car, and he consoled her when her sister died. He took the kids to football games and drove them to school. And though they broke up after four years, Stevie remained a close friend. Annmarie says she knew, when she heard he was missing and when the letters he'd been writing her stopped in August 2007, that he was dead. "Stevie would never have given up on our relationship," she says. "I was the love of his life.

"Stevie had an aura to him that would instantly fill any room," Annmarie remembers. "An energy of happiness, his love for life, family, and friends — he adored all of us. His loss is something I'm still trying to cope with."

This troubled, tough kid grew up to be everybody's "best friend" — it was a term he used even for the young man accused of murdering him.

"Stevie was 15 years older; he treated Jose like a son," Eddie Febonio says simply. "He was a good friend to him. This was just a heinous, premeditated crime." The Febonios spent a sad Sunday on February 21 this year commemorating what would have been their son's 48th birthday.

Alfaro, in contrast, seems to have few supporters now, apart from a loyal girlfriend who passionately defends him whenever an internet blog or news article about the murder appears. She uses the screen name Stacy. "This case is going to fall apart when it gets to trial," she wrote on one blog. "Waste of tax payer's money if you ask me."

A Facebook group titled "I Bet I Can Get 1 Million People to Hate Jose Alfaro" has 50 fans.

On January 11, 2010, Jose Alfaro and his public defender pleaded not guilty and asked for a jury trial. Two weeks later, prosecutors indicated they'd seek the death penalty.

A trial date has not been set, but Alfaro had a preliminary court hearing on March 4. Eddie Febonio and Michael Pampillonia were there. Alfaro, mouth set in a grim line, legs shackled, and wearing a prisoner's blue-and-gray uniform, never glanced at them.

Asked if it was difficult to see Alfaro in court, Eddie Febonio said curtly: "No, it wasn't difficult. I wanted to see him."

Pampillonia felt differently. "This was a guy who came to my house, sat in my house so many times. Now when I see him, I want to strangle him with my bare hands," he said.

According to Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office documents, many of the witnesses interviewed by detectives openly worried about retribution against themselves or their families. If there was anything he hated, Alfaro said over and over, it was "a rat." They have good reason to hope Alfaro will never walk free again.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd

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