Medical marijuana in basement lands man in jail

6:01 AM, Feb 13, 2010   |    comments
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"Whether it's a small grow or a big grow, I don't think the average person realizes how close to their front door it is," Chris Bartkowicz said two weeks ago when he gave 9Wants to Know a tour of his operation.

He operated a large medical marijuana grow facility in the basement of his $637,000 Highlands Ranch home.

"I'm definitely hidden in suburbia," he said.

After 9NEWS showed a tease for a story about Bartkowicz and his operation Thursday night, DEA agents decided he needed a visit. By Friday afternoon DEA agents were at the house carrying away moving boxes and leaf-size trash bags from his home, all filled with marijuana plants.

They also carried away lights, filters and other equipment that were part of Bartkowicz's growing operation.

In the earlier interview, Bartkowicz claimed his operation was completely legal under a state law that allows the growing and sale of medical marijuana.

The special agent in charge of the DEA in Denver says federal law still makes growing and selling marijuana illegal.

"According to him and according to what he's seen on the news he probably believes he is legal," Jeff Sweetin said late Friday afternoon. "We will continue to enforce federal law that's what we are paid to do until the federal law changes."

Bartkowicz is in custody and will not learn what charges he might face until Tuesday, after the President's Day holiday. The U.S. Attorney's office told 9NEWS Friday if he is charged, he could face a charge of possession with intent to distribute. The U.S. Attorney will review the evidence and the decide on the charges.

The raid occurred before 9NEWS could air an extensive story on the operation run in Bartkowicz' basement. 9NEWS has attached that video story to this article.

From the outside, Bartkowicz's house looks like others on his street. His secret was in his 2,000 square foot basement.

A jungle of electrical wires and water hoses snaked from room to room, all supporting Bartkowicz's nearly $500,000 medical marijuana operation.

This year, he hoped for record profits.

"I'd like to see somewhere in the vicinity of $400,000 [in profit,]" he said in our earlier interview, though he admits he could make as little as $100,000 depending on what happens with proposed laws regarding medical marijuana.

Bartkowicz says he has grown for more than a year without his neighbors finding out and without any criminal complications until Friday.

"If my neighbors don't know and no one else knows, how would I be a target?" he said in the earlier interview. "I want to be invisible."

Jefferson County resident Buffi Martynuska disagrees.

"We don't need it, we don't want it," she told 9Wants to Know after a different person grew medical marijuana next door to her. "In my backyard, you [couldn't] miss it."

Headlines about break-ins at medical marijuana dispensaries and the Jan. 5 murder of a man selling medical marijuana in East Denver made her worry criminals would come to her neighborhood next, she said.

Martynuska warned other neighbors. Eventually the people living next door to her voluntarily moved their operation elsewhere.

Crime is also what concerns Josh Stanley, who grows medical marijuana in a downtown commercial building.

"When you are growing in a clandestine residential home you have the opportunity for thieves to target you," Stanley said.

He hired a security guard and runs digital cameras that he says beam video offsite for additional security.

In Highlands Ranch, Bartkowicz says he has had no problems with crime. At least until the DEA's involvement on Friday, Bartkowicz believed his neighbors did not know about the plants growing in his basement.

"I've been going full steam since day one and I've never had a hiccup," he said in the earlier interview.

Three rooms in his basement provided different amounts of light to plants. He worked on a four-month growing cycle starting plants he calls "clones" by clipping off a leaf from a large plant.

"It's not as simple as putting some dirt in a room, putting some plants in it, throwing water on it and putting a light on top," he said in the earlier interview.

Once clones root, they grow into plants 4 to 5 feet tall. It takes about 60 days for the plants to bloom - or grow buds that contain the ingredient THC. When harvested, the buds are smoked, mixed into butter for cooking or made into a liquid.

Bartkowicz got a medical marijuana license for himself after he said pain from scoliosis made it tough to get out of bed. Because he is listed as a caregiver for more than a dozen others, he is allowed to grow for them too. He says he never sells marijuana illegally.

"Why would I? Why would I want to risk my golden ticket," he asked in our earlier interview.

The powerful smell of marijuana filled every room in his house.

To keep neighbors in the dark, Bartkowicz pumped old air through a maze of ducts into a 6-foot-tall carbon filter. It removes the odor before air is released back outside.

Maintaining the operation is costly.

Bartkowicz's showed 9Wants to Know his electric bill for two months. He owed $3,694.92, a small price to pay for what he earns, he said.

"I'm definitely living the dream now," he said in our earlier interview.

Bartkowicz is only one of dozens of people in Colorado who use hidden medical marijuana gardens to grow more than a dozen plants.

With the help of law enforcement from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, the North Metro Drug Task Force, South Metro Drug Task Force and the Aurora Police Department, 9Wants to Know identified recent residential grow operations in cities and counties across the metro area:

West Bowles Avenue and South Kipling Parkway - Jefferson County
South University Boulevard and C-470 - Highlands Ranch
West Waterton Road and North Rampart Range Road - Douglas County
Meadows Boulevard - Castle Rock
Lincoln Avenue and Jordan Road - Parker
East Main Street and North Jordan Road - Parker
East Smoky Hill Road and South Telluride Street - Centennial
South Sherman Street and East Easter Avenue - Centennial
Yale Avenue and South Syracuse Way - Arapahoe County
South Chambers Road and East Hampden Avenue - Aurora
East 84th Avenue and Washington Street - Adams County
Chambers Road and East 104th Avenue - Commerce City
West 80th Avenue and Zuni Street - Adams County
Washington Street and Malley Drive - Northglenn
East 120th Avenue and Washington Street - Northglenn
Colorado Boulevard and East 120th Avenue - Thornton
Colorado Boulevard and East 108th Avenue - Thornton
East 88th Avenue and Washington Street - Thornton
West 104th Avenue and Lowell Boulevard - Westminster
West 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street - Denver
30th Street and Curtis Street - Denver

9NEWS is not releasing exact addresses of grow locations due to concerns the homes could become targets of crime.

If a person growing medical marijuana does so in accordance with state law, most law enforcement will not prevent the person from growing, said South Metro Drug Task Force Sgt. Jason Anderson.

Some known grow operations listed above have been investigated after officials received information saying medical marijuana had more plants than state law allows for each patient.

Currently, state law allows each caregiver to have six medical marijuana plans per patient.

Anderson advises neighbors to watch for suspicious activity in their communities.

"Be alert, watch the neighborhood and if they see any suspicious activity they need to report it," Anderson said.

He says his team investigates every complaint it receives. He encourages residents to call police with questions or concerns.

"Suspicious is different to everybody. If there is a problem they need to contact law enforcement and not try to handle it themselves," Anderson said.

Contact 9NEWS investigative reporter Jace Larson at 303-871-1432 or jace.larson@9news.com.

(KUSA-TV © 2010 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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