Charged with Operating Marijuana Cultivation "Farms" Near
Public and Private Elementary Schools in New York
JOHN P. GILBRIDE, Special Agent-in-Charge, Drug Enforcement Administration, New York, ROSLYNN R. MAUSKOPF, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and DENIS DILLON, Nassau County District Attorney, today announced the unsealing of an indictment charging PETER ZUCCARO, MICHAEL LEZAMIZ, LEONARD PALONE, JOSEPH IORIO, and HARRY GABOR with operating a wholesale marijuana cultivation and distribution ring based in a warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, in the basement of a private residence in Bayside, Queens, New York, and in a summer residence in upstate New York. In connection with the defendants’ arrests, law enforcement agents seized more than a ton of marijuana, $3 million in drug proceeds, and real property at various locations in the New York City metropolitan area, upstate New York, and Florida.
DEA Special Agent-in-Charge GILBRIDE stated, “This investigation magnifies the problems associated with the movement to legalize and regulate marijuana use. Marijuana is a drug that defies regulation; it can be manufactured in clandestine warehouses, basements and in the back yards of our cities and suburbs. Marijuana is often the first drug abused by children, which makes this seizure even more troubling, as it was located within arms reach of two elementary schools. The younger a person is when he or she uses marijuana, the more likely that person will become drug dependant as an adult.”
PALONE, LEZAMIZ, IORIO and GABOR were arraigned last week before United States District Judge Sandra J. Feuerstein at the U. S. Courthouse in Central Islip, New York, and entered pleas of not guilty. PALONE, IORIO and GABOR were ordered detained, and LEZAMIZ was released on $5 million bail. ZUCCARO is currently incarcerated in the Southern District of Florida on an unrelated conviction, and is scheduled to be removed to New York and arraigned by Judge Feuerstein on March 24, 2005.
The charges announced today are the product of the Career Dealer Initiative (“CDI”), a task force of federal and state law enforcement agents that has targeted major marijuana dealers in the metropolitan area. Special agents, officers and investigators from DEA, the Nassau County Police Department, the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office, and the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department participated in the investigation resulting in the charges announced today. To date, CDI operations have led to the arrest of over 150 defendants, the seizure of more than $25 million, and the clearing of many previously unsolved major crimes in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
According to the indictment and other court documents, the crew, led by ZUCCARO, operated a large-scale marijuana cultivation and distribution organization since 1997, employing approximately 15 individuals and grossing a total of nearly $12 million. The defendants grew hydroponic marijuana at three indoor locations. One of the cultivation operations was located in a warehouse at 1041 East 46th Street and 1510-1514 Schenectady Avenue, in Brooklyn, New York, across the street from public elementary school P. S. 109. This location contained a large hidden room where the marijuana was grown with heat lamps under carefully controlled temperatures. According to court documents, the defendants powered this operation with nearly $800,000 in electricity and gas stolen from public utilities through illegal connections, and utilized a complex exhaust system to flush the scent of marijuana from the building. A second marijuana cultivation operation, which was active in 2004 and early 2005, was located in the basement of LEZAMIZ’s residence, at 21315 56th Avenue, Oakland Gardens, Bayside, New York, across the street from the Saint Robert Bellarmine School. The defendants’third operation was a 100-acre summer residence, located at 1755 Dingle Hill Road in Andes, New York. According to the DEA, the defendants’ marijuana cultivation operations were one of the largest ever uncovered by law enforcement in New York.
Law enforcement agents searched each of the defendants’ drug operations and seized more than 160 marijuana plants weighing in excess of 2,600 pounds, and nine jars of “Keif,” an extremely rare and potent form of marijuana, which retails for approximately $1,000 per jar. Agents also seized nearly 50 pounds of marijuana “buds,” worth over $5,000 per pound, a quantity of hashish, a truck, a Donzi speed boat, $50,000 in cash, and various tools, lights, and irrigation systems used to cultivate the marijuana.
“This brazen crew of drug dealers was growing thousands of pounds of marijuana, worth millions of dollars, in the shadow of two elementary schools,” stated United States Attorney MAUSKOPF. “Through the combined efforts of state and local law enforcement, we were able to uncover the defendants’ secret operations, arrest the crew and its leader, seize more than a ton of marijuana, and cut off the lifeblood of the defendants’operation -- its cash and other assets.” Ms. MAUSKOPF stated that the investigation was continuing.
“This case shows again the extraordinary cooperation between the various law enforcement agencies on Long Island,” stated Nassau County District Attorney DILLON. “When my office received information about the existence of a multi-county, large scale marijuana operation, we called upon our partnership with the DEA Long Island Task Force and our long-standing relationship with the United States Attorney’s Office to conduct this tremendously successful investigation.”
Each defendant has been charged with conspiring to traffic in more than 1,000 marijuana plants or 1,000 kilograms of marijuana within 1,000 feet of public and private grammar schools, and money laundering. If convicted on the drug charges, the defendants each face a minimum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment and a maximum sentence of life, a minimum of 10 years of supervised release, and $8,000,000 in fines. If convicted on the money laundering charges, each defendant faces a maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment, three years of supervised release, and $500,000 in fines. In addition, the defendants face forfeiture of $12,000,000, real property and corporate assets.
The government’s case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Burton T. Ryan, Jr. and Richard Lunger.