Miami-Dade police investigate a crime scene at the Lakes of the Meadow development in West Kendall, Fla. on Feb. 20.
Photo credit: Roberto Koltun/El Nuevo Herald/MCT
When Doris Corveas' husband called to say he was stuck in a road block near their West Kendall home, she could barely hear him over the sound of circling helicopters.
She stepped outside to take a look.
What she saw was the aftermath of a violent shootout between police and suspected marijuana growers in the Lakes of the Meadow development, which had left a burning home, a body inside and a neighborhood in chaos.
Within 18 hours, police had arrested a suspect who fled the home, and said a body found hanging some 10 blocks away was a third man involved in the shootout.
Police identified the man arrested as Brian Kelly Howell, 29. The body found hanging in an apparent suicide was Dell Peter DiGiovanni, 50.
Police said they were still looking for a third suspect, Michael Steven DiGiovanni, 27. As of Wednesday evening, they had not identified the body found in the charred home.
Investigators offered few details of the narcotics investigation that drew them to the West Kendall neighborhood of pink and yellow stucco homes with neatly manicured front lawns.
The three suspected marijuana growers didn't appear to have a major criminal background -- just a few traffic infractions in Virginia and Florida.
The men had lived in the rented, red-roofed house at Southwest 57th Street and 154th Court, for several years. They mainly kept to themselves, and didn't try to fit in, neighbors said.
"It was little things you notice that were off," said one resident who said she lived in the area for more than 20 years and did not want to be identified.
One of the men who lived there once crashed his car into a tree and split it in half. Neighbors attributed small acts of vandalism to them, including mailboxes knocked over.
Still, the shootout that started the all-night manhunt was not something they expected.
It all started at about 7 p.m. Tuesday, when Miami-Dade narcotics detectives arrived at 15415 Southwest 57th Street to check on a tip about a possible marijuana grow house.
As police approached, the shooting started. Officers returned fire and said three men escaped on foot. For reasons yet unknown, the house caught fire.
Police units from around the county responded, engaging in a manhunt that kept the neighborhood locked down all night.
One of the officers involved in the shootout was Edwin Diaz, who was wounded in a similar shooting outside a Naranja grow house in 2008.
"He certainly seems to have nine lives," police union president John Rivera said Wednesday. "It's commendable."
If indeed the property was a hydroponic grow house, it was part of a lucrative national trend of indoor marijuana farms that has "been going on for quite some time, at least a decade, in South Florida," said James N. Hall, an epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University.
Hall described these grow houses as up to $1 million annual, mom-and-pop type operations inside three- or four-bedroom houses using the guise of suburbia to cover up their criminal activities producing "a very high grade, very expensive grade of marijuana" in four crops a year.
"It's quite often the case that neighbors are surprised," Hall said.
But as this week's carnage in Kendall illustrated, it can have a sinister side. Raids by police or rival gangs can turn violent because these houses laden with cash crops and sophisticated equipment are typically protected by firearms.
More typically, Hall said, a SWAT team can move in without gunfire by detecting a grow house through high electrical usage or infrared light sensors that allow authorities the element of surprise.
While rarely violent, grow-house raids are increasingly part of the rhythm of life in Florida.
-- In June, Miami-Dade police closed down South Miami Middle Community School, just in case, while SWAT team members surrounded a home at 6600 SW 61st Street to peaceably order out a man for arrest as a suspected member of a grow-house ring.
-- In March 2011, police busted a grow house on a well-kept street in Boca Raton after being alerted to a home invasion in which robbers tied up a man inside. Police arrived after the robbers fled but found an elaborate grow house in the garage.
-- In June 2010, Miami Dade police announced a one-day county-wide sweep in collaboration with state and federal authorities shut down 49 hydroponic labs, yielded 42 arrests and 2,300 marijuana plants with a street value of $9.4 million.
In June 2009, the authorities announced a one-day crackdown called Operation Eagle Claw shut down 120 residential hydroponic pot labs, seized 6,800 plants and saw 142 people arrested across all 67 of Florida's counties.
Miami Herald reporter David Ovalle contributed to this report.
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