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In foreclosure-plagued Vegas, empty homes go to pot

A surge in marijuana grow houses is linked in part to the region's mortgage crisis.

November 12, 2011|By Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times
  • Las Vegas police photos show Fredrica Ballard and her sons, William, left, and Daniel. Police say they found a marijuana-growing operation in the family's home.
Las Vegas police photos show Fredrica Ballard and her sons, William, left,… (Las Vegas Metropolitan…)

Reporting from Las Vegas — The Ballard house was as unassuming as any in the stucco outskirts of Las Vegas: a two-story box the color of an oatmeal cookie. Police charged inside one night searching for a domestic violence suspect. Instead, they smelled something skunky.

Marijuana. Lots of it.

Two-foot-tall plants fought for space in a hallway, police later testified. Half a dozen jars of buds hid in a closet. The master bedroom was something of a jungle, with two Ballard children, ages 8 and 9, asleep on the bed.

The home — with four bedrooms and 61 plants — was one of the smaller alleged grow operations authorities have dismantled this year. At another home, authorities seized 878 plants worth an estimated $2.6 million.

Las Vegas has a pot home problem. And like many of the region's maladies, it's tied to the housing slump.

Last year, authorities took down 153 indoor grow sites in Nevada and seized more than 13,000 plants, compared with 18 sites and 1,000 plants in 2005, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said. (By comparison, California busted 791 indoor sites last year.)

"You can't have crime without opportunity," said William Sousa, a criminologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "And all those empty homes present an opportunity for criminal activity."

Major cultivators spend tens of thousands of dollars turning cheap homes into greenhouses. Small-scale growers transform bedrooms into grow rooms, as Fredrica Ballard, 43, and her two adult sons are accused of doing in a foreclosure-turned-rental home. The Ballards have pleaded not guilty to possession charges, and their attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.

In neighborhoods where residents may be as transient as crowds in a subway station, growers are rarely questioned about dark windows and empty driveways. Those are also hallmarks of abandoned homes, of which America's foreclosure capital has plenty. "I don't know anybody here, and I don't want to stick my nose in their business," an elderly man who lived near the Ballards said one afternoon. Then he shut his door.

Much of the marijuana produced in the United States and Mexico is grown outdoors, experts say. But those who grow hydroponic marijuana indoors can better control temperature and light and produce a higher-grade product. While a pound of Mexican marijuana sells for at least $750, said DEA spokesman Jeffrey Scott, a pound of hydroponic marijuana sells for at least $3,000.

Sgt. Russ Cutolo of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department has seen nearly identical setups at multiple homes, suggesting some groups take a chain-restaurant approach to farming pot. Another grower constructed a fake front room with timer-controlled lights so the house appeared occupied.

Some homes are well-armed: In 2009, nearly 40% of the firearms that southern Nevada narcotics detectives seized came from marijuana-growing operations, said a report by the Nevada High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program.

Still, Morgan Fox of the national Marijuana Policy Project called the enforcement efforts a waste of resources. "No matter how many grow houses they bust, it's not going to make a dent in the marijuana business until we put in a legal system," he said. While Nevada allows medical marijuana, voters in 2006 spurned a pot-legalization measure.

This year, authorities have busted at least 130 indoor grow sites, nearly two dozen more than at the same point in 2010, Cutolo said. They're usually tipped off by suspicious neighbors. With the Ballards, authorities said, they got lucky.

One January night, William Ballard, 21, called police. His brother Daniel, then 22, had repeatedly punched him during a scuffle over car keys, he said, according to court papers. When officers arrived and saw William's bloody forehead, they entered the house to find Daniel.

That's when they smelled the plants and found what police testified was a grow room with blinding lights, fans, a watering system and chemicals. In the master bedroom, they found scales and packing materials, as well as more than $2,600 in cash.

Police said the Ballards admitted to growing cannabis. Fredrica Ballard said she had a medical marijuana card, which she never produced, and a doctor's note saying she could grow 99 plants. State law, however, allows medical marijuana patients to only grow seven. Later, William Ballard told police that his younger siblings had been taught to water the plants and pick the mature buds.

The Ballards have since moved out of the neighborhood.

ashley.powers@latimes.com

Times researcher Robin Mayper contributed to this report.

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