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

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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.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd

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