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CAROL ROBINSON News staff writer

Authorities say the largest indoor marijuana growing operation in the state's history was quietly thriving in a warehouse in a northeast Birmingham industrial pocket, operating covertly and producing top-grade pot that sells for four times the price of traditionally grown marijuana.
After a two-month investigation, Jefferson County sheriff's deputies raided the Kingston warehouse Thursday night, busting up a sophisticated hydroponic system in which plants are grown in water, without dirt.
The system uses intense heat lamps to simulate sunlight and is capable of producing a million dollars of marijuana each year.
Two men, one a suspended Birmingham lawyer, were arrested and charged with drug trafficking. Authorities also seized more than 500 marijuana plants and $75,000.
''We believe it has been in operation as long as 2005,'' said sheriff's spokesman Lt. Randy Christian. ''We talked with the DEA and they have never seen one approaching this size in Alabama.''
Authorities say lawyer Daniel Pinson Rosser and Steven Sartino, both 37 and of Birmingham, were renting the warehouse from a man who was under the impression they were using it as storage for a discount store.
The inside looked like anything but a makeshift storage unit. It was a pot-lover's paradise.
At least $65,000 worth of pot was hanging from strings in drying rooms, authorities said. Mother plants, which yielded the seedlings for the operation, were kept secluded in a separate room.
The warehouse was equipped with a timer system that switched back and forth to produce sunlight or to imitate the darkness of night.
While it appeared some of the plants were in dirt, they weren't. The plants sat in Hydroton, clay pellets that held the plants up.
Drug and tactical deputies raided the warehouse about 7 p.m. Thursday.
''It was almost surreal, like walking into a greenhouse that only sells one plant but a lot of them. From room to room the plants progressed from a sapling to a full-grown plant with a different system of care in each room,'' Christian said.
''There was a sophisticated watering, temperature and light system throughout the rooms and some rooms had notepads hanging up with specific care instructions. There was one sign that said, 'Close the door or the devil will get you.' It should have said, 'Close the door or the deputies will get you,' because we did,'' Christian said.
Drug investigators developed information on the operation about two months ago and have had the operation under surveillance, finally getting enough evidence for Thursday's search warrant.
Rosser was arrested at his home on Beacon Parkway; Sartino was arrested at his Southside home, Christian said. Sartino had cocaine with him when he was arrested.
Rosser is charged with trafficking marijuana and is being held in the county jail on $1 million bond.
Sartino is charged with marijuana and cocaine trafficking. His bond is set at $2 million.
Authorities said they will begin the investigation into the money trail, and seize any assets believed to be purchased with profits from the operation.
Hydroponics is the preferred method of growing marijuana to make the drug more potent, which generates more money for the drug dealers, authorities said. The product sells for $4,500 per pound versus the normal $1,000 per pound.
''We don't see much of it, because it's very time-consuming to keep it running and it's very complex and requires constant and consistent maintenance,'' Christian said.
Nationwide, hydroponic marijuana has increased in popularity and become an organized criminal enterprise, bringing with it noticeable increases in violent crimes such as home invasions, armed robberies, arsons and homicides, authorities said.
Sheriff Mike Hale said he didn't initially appreciate the magnitude of what his drug investigators were uncovering.
''It would be impressive if it was a legitimate business,'' he said.
Thursday's bust is another example of the department's focus on eradicating illegal drugs from the community. Marijuana, Hale said, is a gateway drug that leads to more violent crime.
''We have had enough of that here.''

story from: Birmingham News
 
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