COVINGTON - Walton County authorities arrested a man Thursday night who they say is a ringleader in a case involving numerous large-scale marijuana growing operations in the metro Atlanta area.
The suspect, Juan Martin Lopez, of Loganville, is facing numerous charges including conspiracy to cultivate marijuana and conspiracy to traffic marijuana.
Authorities believe Lopez is one of the leaders of a group responsible for setting up marijuana grow houses across metro Atlanta. Since mid-February, authorities have discovered more than 35 grow houses scattered across 13 metro area counties, according to published reports.
In most cases, the marijuana was being grown using the hydroponic method in the basements of the houses, which were retrofitted with a complex lighting and irrigation system. This hydroponic growth method is commonly referred to as the "Miami Setup," and it involves putting marijuana plants in a bucket inside of smaller baskets with a dirt mixture, while water and fertilizer are sent through two small hoses to constantly feed the roots.
Three Newton County residences - 1624 Ga. Highway 162, 50 Havenwood Court and 370 Parker Road - were raided by authorities on Feb. 12. Five people were arrested in connection with drugs found in those homes, including Francisco Hernandez, 45, of Miami; Adalberto Hernandez-Cruz, 34, of 370 Parker Road; Wence Slau Santieste Ban, 43, of 50 Havenwood Court; Eduardo Rey, 33, of Miami; and Tomas Calzado Valiente, 40, of Indiana. Rey, Valiente and Hernandez were each charged with one count of trafficking marijuana, while Hernandez-Cruz and Santieste Ban were charged with one count of marijuana cultivation and one count of marijuana trafficking.
Another suspect, Yaridys Gallardo, 31, of West Palm Beach, Fla., turned herself in to authorities on Feb. 22, after her name was discovered on the power bill at the house on Ga. Highway 162.
At a bond hearing held March 1, Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr. ruled that there wasn't a sufficient amount of information available to determine whether Gallardo should be granted a bond. Her motion for bond will be heard by the judge again this week.
Gallardo has been charged with trafficking in marijuana, cultivation of marijuana, interfering with property of public utility companies and theft of services.
Rockdale County Sheriff's Office deputies also raided a home on Feb. 12 at 2602 Abbeyridge Road in Conyers, where they arrested four people and seized 148 plants, along with 60 pounds of packaged marijuana.
Those arrested include Minerda Perez Jorge, 51, and, Benito Abreu Hernandez, 56, both of North Carolina; Fresnio Jorge Perez, 53, and Cesar Fernandez Acosta, both of whom lived at the Abbeyridge home. All have been charged with one count of cultivating marijuana and one count of trafficking marijuana.
The illegal operation came to light after officials with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Miami raided a house and uncovered evidence that showed there were numerous homes in metro Atlanta being used for marijuana cultivation.
The extent of the operation was discovered following the arrest of a Fayette County realtor, identified as Blanca Botello, 34, and her husband, Merquides Martinez, 35, last month. The couple, who are the accused masterminds of the operation, have been charged with manufacturing and trafficking in marijuana.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.