MANATEE -- A 39-year-old man, who was convicted in a Tampa federal court Monday of running marijuana grow houses in Bradenton, Parrish and Duette, had the largest operation of its kind in Manatee County since the "Myakka Gold" days of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
"This is probably the largest amount of marijuana we have seized since way back when," Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube said Tuesday of the approximately 3,387 marijuana plants, valued at approximately $5 million, captured in five grow houses between March and October 2011.
Bradenton's Do Nguyen, who ran the operation, rent
ed the houses and hired employees to check on lighting used to grow marijuana indoors. He faces a maximum penalty of 40 years in federal prison, according to a news release Tuesday from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa.
"Myakka Gold" was a reputed high-grade marijuana worth millions of dollars and grown in vast quantities in the swamps and land around Myakka City by numerous growers until operations were ended by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office and the Drug Enforcement Agency in the early 1990s.
Nguyen does not appear connected to any of the figures invovlved with Myakka Gold, Steube said.
Nguyen was indicted Nov. 6, 2012. His sentencing hearing will be scheduled later, according to the release.
"This indictment is the result of the work of an entire task force," said Bradenton Police Chief Michael Radzilowski, whose agency was also credited along with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency with helping end the operation.
The first grow house was discovered by accident when sheriff's deputies were called to 32790 Taylor Grade Road in Duette in 2011, said Dave Bristow, sheriff's office spokesman.
"We responded to a routine call and the deputy noticed something suspicious when looking inside the windows," Bristow said. "We were able to get a search warrant and discovered there were 1,400 plants in the house. From there, investigation led to the other four houses."
Each marijuana plant found had a street value of about $1,500, Bristow said.
"These were large, flourishing plants," Bristow added.
For Nguyen's operation to be described as the largest since "Myakka Gold" sets it apart, authorities said.
"These days, if we get a call about a marijuana grow operation, it's usually 60 to 80 plants," Steube said. "It's not grown as much as it used to be back in the day."
Marijuana growing was so widespread in Manatee County in the "Myakka Gold" days that during growing season the sheriff's office divided the county into three areas and went to battle like an army, Steube said.
"We had helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft spotting plants from the air," Steube said.
"We would train the spotters on how to see marijuana plants from the sky. Marijuana appears as a hot spot from the air. Plants look red, almost maroon. We also sent teams into the area equipped with food and water for up to five days, waiting for the growers to come to tend their crops,
"We don't do that anymore," Steube said. "There's not that many plants now and we are finding when it's grown, it's grown in homes."
According to testimony and evidence presented at trial, Nguyen managed the five grow houses from mid-2010 through October 2011.
Nguyen recruited and employed three workers at the houses. Nguyen reportedly also paid a relative, Minh Tran, who worked as a driver for UPS, to deliver packages to him containing pounds of marijuana from California.
Tran pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana in May. His sentencing is scheduled Sept. 23.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686