It was supposed to be what narcotics officers call a simple “knock and talk.”
But the undercover detectives, who said they flashed police badges, never had a chance to knock.
A gunman was hiding in the front seat of a 2005 BMW, parked in the driveway and, according to investigators, protecting a house where he was cultivating a flourishing marijuana nursery, on SW 60th Court, in a tidy middle-class neighborhood off Coral Way in West Miami-Dade.
It was just before 7 p.m. Tuesday. Residents were walking their dogs, watching the Olympics or sharing dinner when the gunman, seeing the lawmen approach, opened fire, shooting one of them three times before the officers fatally riddled him with lead.
Despite a bullet-proof vest, Miami-Dade Police Detective John Saavedra was shot in his thigh and his side, with third bullet lodged in his spleen. He was recovering following surgery at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
The sudden violence surprised neighbors on the residential road lined with trees and small yards. And less than a mile away, it also shocked the family of the man who died.
The shootings underscored South Florida’s reputation as the grow house capital of the nation, home to a violent and competitive narco-trafficking trade commanded by drug dealers running grow house networks like the cocaine cowboys of the 1980s.
Authorities are investigating whether the hydroponic lab is part of a larger grow house operation run by gangs that have proliferated in Miami-Dade since the mid-2000s. The fact that one of the suspects opened fire so swiftly also may have been a sign that he suspected that the undercover officers, in spite of their badges, were actually part of a rival gang. Some drug gangs have been known to pose as police officers, complete with uniforms, police vests and guns, to rob competitors of their cash and crops.
“At the end of the day, they were still police officers, they were wearing badges and they identified themselves as officers,” said Miami-Dade spokesman Detective Javier Baez. He added that at least one of the police vehicles at the house was a marked Miami-Dade police cruiser.
The team of officers and an FBI agent were part of the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force based in Doral. HIDTA has led numerous grow house crackdowns in South Florida, including busting an elaborate family-run ring in June that ran 20 grow houses scattered across Miami-Dade. That operation, run by the Santiesteban clan, involved kidnapping and murder, according to authorities.
The grow house business is so prolific in South Florida that it has spawned a cadre of lawyers who label themselves “grow house attorneys” specializing in defending the wealthy pot farmers. Each plant can produce one pound of pot, which has a street value of $4,500 — double that if they sell it in New York or New Jersey, authorities say.
Tuesday’s undercover operation, however, was supposed to be low-key. The officers, acting on a tip, conducted a surveillance of the house, at 2325 SW 60th Ct. During their stakeout, detectives saw a black Toyota sedan pull into the driveway. A man, identified as Luis Lazaro Esevanell, 59, exited the car and went into the house. A short time later, he re-emerged.
In a “knock and talk,” officers approach the owner or caretaker of the house and try to persuade him to permit a search of the residence. If the resident says no, the cops can ask for a warrant.
The law officers, displaying badges, asked Estevanell if they could search the house. Estevanell instead tried to run inside.
That’s when Gerardo Delgado, 56, who was concealed in the driver’s seat of a BMW parked nearby, jumped out and opened fire, according to the police report.
Saavedra, 34, a 10-year veteran, was wounded. The detectives and FBI agents returned the gunfire, killing Delgado, of 5840 SW 25th St.
Detectives captured Estevanell, who upon questioning, admitted that he was running the grow house. He was also found in possession of .5 grams of cocaine. He was charged with second-degree felony murder, trafficking marijuana, possession of a place used to manufacture a controlled substance and cocaine possession.
On Wednesday, relatives of the dead man gathered less than a mile away and remembered Delgado as a family man, the father of three and a diligent organizer of family get-togethers.
They declined to comment on the drug accusations.
Delgado’s 23-year-old son, also named Gerardo, said the home on 60th Court was owned by his grandparents. In recent years, his grandmother had passed away and his grandfather had moved to a different home. The 60th Court dwelling became a business office for the his father and Estevanell.
The two worked as independent jewelers, the son said. Estevanell was also the younger Delgado’s godfather.
The son said he had heard that Estevanell didn’t realize the badge-toting visitors were officers and called Delgado, thinking they were suspicious. Delgado opened fire, his son said, after seeing an officer tackle Estevanell.
He fired, “to protect his friend from a stranger,” his son said.
“I don’t know the officer, but I know my dad. He was a good man,” the son said, “better than I am.”
A neighbor across the street from the suspected grow house said he heard the first burst of gunfire and thought it was firecrackers until he heard a lot of yelling and more bursts.
The neighbor, who only gave his first name, George, went to a window, looked outside and saw an officer behind a car, yelling at the person in the BMW to get out of the car. He grabbed his camera. By then, police cars from across the county flooded the street.
George said he never would have suspected such a commotion from the small home with the big Royal Poinciana tree in the front yard. An elderly couple had lived there, and he recalled seeing the old man ride a bicycle with a small dog in a basket seat attached. Occasionally family visited.
Wednesday night, a few stray pieces of police tape remained. Shattered glass was scattered across the driveway. And the Royal Poinciana’s trunk was punctured by bullet holes.
“I hope I never live through this again,” George said.