Hundreds of thousands of dollars in marijuana was seized from seven grow houses in Pasco County after investigators stopped by to check out claims of electric theft, officials said.
The Pasco Sheriff's Office said they were alerted to the seven houses by officials with Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative after the company realized more than $206,000 worth of power was being stolen over the course of the past two weeks.
When investigators got to each home, they found elaborate marijuana grow operations. The sheriff's office believes it to be the work of an organized crime ring because the wiring installed to steal the electricity at each home appears to be the handiwork of the same person.
So far, only one arrest has been made. Rafael Romero, 50, of Port Richey, is charged with trafficking and cultivating marijuana and theft of utilities. The sheriff's office anticipates more arrests as the investigation continues.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Chris Nocco is asking residents, particularly those with Withlacoochee River Electric, to report any suspicious homes to the sheriff's office. Noticeable signs that you may be living by a grow house include plastic bags over the windows and multiple air conditioning units running constantly.
"You should take a very strong interest to help the sheriff's office out and Withlacoochee Electric and please report anybody that's stealing this," Nocco said. "Because it affects you directly and your family."
Company spokesperson David Lambert said Withlacoochee Electric has lost more than $2 million in revenue as the result of electric theft since 2006. Lambert said that cost has unfortunately been passed on to customers, making it even more important to remain vigilant in your neighborhood.
"It doesn't matter, it can be in one of the nicest developments around or it can be in the rural areas or in one of the poorest areas around," Lambert said. "It's all over our service territory."
Withlacoochee Electric is now offering a $500 reward to anyone who provides information that results in the arrest and successful prosecution of anyone stealing electricity or operating a grow house that is on the cooperative's lines.