Miami-Dade police detectives raiding the home of a suspected marijuana trafficker unearthed an estimated $24 million in cash — mostly in bundles of $100 bills in heat-sealed bags stuffed in 24 orange 5-gallon Home Depot-brand buckets.
The staggering amount of cash, found inside an upscale Miami Lakes gated neighborhood, is believed to be the largest single cash seizure in Miami-Dade police history.
Exhausted investigators late Wednesday were still counting the cash, most of which was found inside a secret compartment only accessible through the attic of the posh house. The hidden room was guarded by a hallway statuette of St. Lazarus, a Catholic saint popular in Cuba and with followers of the Santería religion.
Arrested was Luis Hernandez-Gonzalez, 44, who owns and operates the Blossom Experience, a North Miami-Dade store that sells lights, fans and other equipment for indoor gardening. Police believe the business, while legitimate, caters to Miami’s robust but illegal marijuana grow-house industry.
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To leave jail, a judge ordered Hernandez-Gonzalez post a $4 million bond — clean money, not drug money, and not in buckets.
“For a man with $20 million in his walls, an elevated bond is clearly necessary,” Miami-Dade prosecutor Adam Korn said at a Wednesday bond hearing.
His attorney, Frank Gaviria, said he believes the government jumped the gun in arresting Hernandez-Gonzalez.
“My understanding is that he ran a very successful hydroponics supply store, which in of itself is lawful,” Gaviria said.
For now, Hernandez-Gonzalez is facing a host of state charges, including money laundering, marijuana trafficking and possession of a firearm while committing a felony. His sister, Salma Hernandez, who worked at the Blossom Experience, was also arrested and charged.
The discovery Tuesday was part of investigation by the police, prosecutors and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration into Hernandez-Gonzalez, who runs the business on the 7200 block of Northwest 54th Street, and a group believed to be trafficking marijuana in Tennessee.
According to an arrest report, the DEA first began targeting Hernandez-Gonzalez back in 2010, when he openly discussed the ins-and-outs of the marijuana trade with a confidential informant. On its website, Blossom Experience touts itself as “unmatched service and support for their indoor gardening needs.”
One informant told agents Hernandez-Gonzalez undercut his competitors by selling equipment cheaply, then bought high-grade marijuana for good prices from his own customers and sold it himself at high profit. On two occasions, the informant — himself a doper — sold 101 pounds of marijuana to Hernandez-Gonzalez at the store.
DEA agents could never build a solid enough case to arrest him.
His name surfaced again earlier this year when DEA agents began monitoring phone calls as part of a wide-ranging marijuana probe that netted the June 15 arrests of 11 people in Tennessee, all with ties to Miami. A Nashville government press release described them as “Cuban nationals.”
In Tennessee, investigators seized more than 300 marijuana plants, at least five guns and more than $140,000 in cash. Ringleaders Luis Rego, 32, and Pedro Martin, 28, hail from Miami.
The investigation into Hernandez-Gonzalez was a spinoff. Federal wiretaps recorded Hernandez-Gonzalez in phone calls giving Rego advice on how to care for the sick plants. Rego even sent Hernandez-Gonzalez text-message photos of some ailing plants, according to court documents.
“You don’t need to do anything to it,” Hernandez-Gonzalez allegedly told Rego on one recorded call in April. “You need to keep it ... unbothered and cool. A little bit of food.”
With help from Miami-Dade narcotics detectives and prosecutors, agents Tuesday executed a search warrant at Blossom Experience.
Inside, they found marijuana seeds, marijuana labeled “Super Skunk and Chernobyl” and $180,000 cash in a safe. Hernandez-Gonzalez admitted to frequently helping customers learn how to “properly cultivate marijuana,” Miami-Dade Detective Jonathan Santana wrote in his arrest report.
Next, the investigators raided his home in Miami Lakes, 7780 NW 169th Terrace, in a leafy gated community of sprawling homes.
Hernandez-Gonzalez had lived in this mango-colored five-bedroom, two-story home the past decade. He bought the lot and had the home built — investigators believe the secret attic compartment was added during construction.
Neighbors here described Hernandez-Gonzales and his family as nice, but largely guarded, rarely interacting with them. He initially denied any money was in the house.
Inside the master-bedroom closet, Miami-Dade police detectives found heat-sealed bags of cash, each labeled “$150K.” Police also found numerous vials of steroids and a loaded Tec-9 pistol with an extended clip, according to the arrest report.
The tiny money room — about 6-feet-by-7 feet — was on the second floor, down a hallway next to the bedroom of his two children. It could only accessed through the attic, through a trap door hidden by a layer of fiberglass insulation. The attic entrance was guarded by more figurines associated with the Santeria religion.
Removing the St. Lazarus from a wall alcove, detectives punched a hole in the hallway wall to remove the buckets. The discovery stunned even veteran narcotics detectives used to processing large amounts of money.
The buckets were loaded onto the back of a pickup truck and hauled to the Miami-Dade police department, where the bills were painstakingly entered into money-counting machines.
Miami-Dade police will likely now move to take ownership of the money through civil forfeiture laws, while the feds could seize the Miami Lakes home.
“The amount of the currency seized represents one of the largest money seizures ever in this jurisdiction,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, whose office will prosecute the case.