Family marijuana business shut down by the feds in Florida

For years, the Santiesteban family ran an elaborate marijuana growing operation — from planting seeds under hydroponic lights to harvesting the potent plants and hauling them to New York to sell — with at least 17 grow houses scattered across Miami-Dade, federal prosecutors said.

They set up surveillance cameras, hired caretakers to guard their crops, and when family members identified a robber who had ripped off 30 plants, they helped kidnap him, prosecutors said. The man was shot and beaten to death, his body dumped on a roadway, his van torched in the Everglades.

On Tuesday, law enforcement agents finally shut down the massive operation — charging six family members and 10 others with conspiracy to distribute drugs — ending one of the largest marijuana enterprises in Miami-Dade.

Five were charged in the kidnapping and slaying.

“This was a very well-organized criminal network that operated here for a very long time,” William Athas, an assistant U.S. attorney, said during a court appearance with eight of the defendants on Wednesday.

Prosecutors charged the operation was a family affair — Gilberto Santiesteban Sr., Alexander, Derrick, Darvis, Gilberto Jr., and Yadira — with members setting up a network of homes, hiring caretakers starting in 2004 to cultivate and package the marijuana, and then hauling it in rental cars to New York and New Jersey.

In addition to the Miami-Dade homes, there were two more residences used to grow pot, in St. Cloud, Fla., and Monticello, N.Y.

The going rate for a pound: $4,800.

Along with the Santiestebans, 10 others were charged, including caretakers, growers — even a man who cooked for the laborers.

One of the runners, Gilberto Jr., was nicknamed “Lucky 95,’’ because he managed to drive so many trips from Miami to New York on Interstate 95 without being caught while carrying hundreds of thousands in drug money.

During the trips, he rode with his wife and children to provide cover, prosecutors said.

“They operated under the radar for a long time,” Athas told U.S. Magistrate Edwin Torres with nearly two dozen relatives and friends of the defendants sitting in the back of the courtroom.

When two of the grow houses were raided by Miami-Dade police — with a dozen people nabbed — the operators simply shut down one and set up another, records state.

Miami-Dade police had a shot at cracking the enterprise eight years ago when they raided a home at 3200 SW 103rd Ct. after getting a tip, but they left empty handed. The reason: They missed a hidden room that was only accessible from the outside.

In 2008, Gilberto Santiesteban Jr., was returning from New York after delivering a load when he was stopped by Osceola County sheriff’s deputies for a traffic infraction. Inside the vehicle: $155,824 and four electric money counters.

Deputies returned the counters but seized the cash. Santiesteban, who was not charged, didn’t contest the forfeiture action.

After that, the runners began tucking the drug money inside spare tires to avoid getting caught.

While opening and shuttering grow houses, the enterprise is suspected of moving more than 1,000 plants. “They grew most of it here, but they sold it [primarily] in the New York area,” said Athas.

Most customers paid for the pot in cash, but in some cases, they were directed to deposit the money in specific bank accounts in New York and New Jersey. One account was labeled: “Grow-Tek, LLC.’’

The family came under investigation in 2009 when four men posing as cops with flashing lights on their car and badges dangling from their necks barged into a home owned by Derrick Santiesteban. They swiped 30 to 40 marijuana plants before bolting, the indictment states.

Santiesteban, who caught the rip-off on video, identified one of the intruders as Fidel Ruz Moreno, 35, and ended up scoping out Moreno’s home with other defendants, records state.

At some point, Moreno emerged from the home and left in a white van, prompting Santiesteban to begin following the van in his own car. When Moreno reached a stop sign, Santiesteban blocked the van and then rushed it, forcing the victim into the rear.

Minutes later, one of the other defendants, Norge Mandulay, shot Moreno five times before tossing his body from the vehicle, the indictment states. He proceeded to beat Moreno — cracking his skull — to make sure he was dead.

The defendants then tried to clean the vehicle. “They were pulling out panels with blood and brain tissue,” said Athas. Later, they drove the van to the Everglades and burned it.

During the court hearing Wednesday, prosecutors argued that most of the family members — including the four Santiesteban brothers — should not be released on bond, saying they are dangers to the community and flight risks.

The five defendants charged with the kidnapping and slaying of Moreno — Derrick Santiesteban, Gilberto Santiesteban Jr., Yadira Santiesteban, Juan Felipe Castaneda, and Manduley — could face the death penalty, prosecutors said. Castaneda is still at large.

Others charged with conspiracy to distribute: Dayana Castellanos of Miami, German Silvestro of Miami, David Silva of Miami, Raul Fabian Ramirez Jr., of Miami, Francisco Javier Diaz of Miami-Dade, Alejandro Pimentel of Miami, and Estrella Mijares of Miami.

Two others charged with conspiracy are still at large: Darvis Santiesteban of Miami and John Villalonga of Miami-Dade.