Marble Hill marijuana bust may have prevented tragedy


Some cannabis-craving smokers seeking a black-market high will likely have to sniff it out elsewhere after a marijuana grow house was discovered in a Marble Hill apartment building right after Christmas.

It all started Dec. 27 when the New York Police Department’s narcotics bureau received a tip from an anonymous source about what they believed was a drug operation at 1 Jacobus Place, said 50th Precinct community affairs officer Juan Ventura.

“When we showed up, we had to secure everything, because obviously we don’t want another situation with a house explosion,” Ventura said. “You don’t want a repetition.”

Ventura was referring to when fire department battalion chief Michael Fahy was killed in 2016 after he was struck in the head by debris in a gas explosion at a Kingsbridge home on the corner of Tibbett Avenue and West 234th Street that turned out to be a grow house. The Dec. 27 bust took place less than a mile from where Fahy lost his life.

Two men — Garivaldi Castillo, of Washington Heights, and Julio Salcedo, of Kingsbridge — pleaded guilty last July to second-degree manslaughter in Fahy’s death. Castillo faces up to six years in prison, court officials said, while Salcedo might spend four years behind bars.

In Marble Hill, there was extra precaution with both the fire department and Con Edison on-scene, Ventura said, checking for elevated gas levels.

“Good thing they did, because it looks like it could have been a dangerous situation,” he said.

Firefighters apparently smelled gas outside the building, prompting them to investigate a potential leak, according to published reports. That led them to discover more than 100 marijuana plants stashed inside two separate fifth-floor apartments.

Both the fourth and fifth floors were evacuated.

“It wasn’t too long until (ConEd) said it was OK and that residents could come back in,” Ventura said. “After that, we obviously confiscated everything that was in there,” including the plants officers hoisted out in bags before packing them into squad cars.

In addition to cannabis, police also wrangled ventilation devices and lights, according to published reports. Since grow houses require more power for heat lamps, electrical wires were snaked through the building’s dumbwaiter up to the apartments. Meanwhile, ConEd had flagged the building for police when they noticed high electricity usage, which can signal a grow operation.

Buildings department officials also inspected the structure, discovering illegal plumbing and electrical work, along with partitions inside both apartments. They issued a violation for work without a permit, according to reports.

Police are still investigating, Ventura said, with no arrests reported as of Jan. 3.

When it comes to cracking down on drug sales in the 5-0, it’s no quick task, Ventura added.

“It’s a lot of investigation, and it takes some time,” he said. “That’s why our narcotics bureau does extensive investigations. They’re going to do everything they have to do to get the bad guys. They have to get information on who the players are” and look into “whichever locations they think are conducting illegal business.”

Ventura’s already logged a decade as a police officer serving the 50th Precinct, so snuffing out drug rings isn’t new to him. Nor do places where they’ve typically taken root — which actually could be anywhere from Marble Hill to North Riverdale — look all that different from when he started here.

“We’ve had a few stash houses here and there,” Ventura said. “This is a good community. These guys are going to look for a nice, quiet community to do these types of businesses. There’ve been big busts in this area — because it’s a quiet neighborhood.

“We are tackling it all the time. Once in a while, you see that happening.”

Like when various law enforcement officers from the multi-jurisdictional Drug Enforcement Task Force engaged in a high-speed inter-borough chase last September. That ended in a crash and ultimately the arrest of four men they believed to be connected to what was described as a West 262nd Street heroin mill just south of the city line.

Still, even with — and perhaps because of — ongoing enforcement against narcotics, major crimes in the 5-0 were down nearly 5 percent last year compared to the previous year, according to NYPD statistics as of Dec. 30.

That includes an 11 percent drop in burglaries, and a nearly 14 percent drop in grand larcenies, although car thefts climbed close to 23 percent, while murders more than doubled, from three in 2017 to seven last year.

Still, keeping people safe can be extremely risky business for those tasked with serving and protecting.

“Everything is a challenge,” Ventura said. “It’s a lot of groundwork,” plus a lot of digging while pursuing potential perpetrators. “Once we get everything down, we do what we have to do (to) make arrests (and) stop these guys.

“It can be dangerous,” especially when it comes to narcotics, he added. “Some of these guys have weapons, guns. Not all the time, but there’s things we never know until we actually confront them.”

And while some drugs may be considered more deadly or addictive than others — like heroin — preventing illegal sales is all treated the same.

“Narcotics is narcotics,” Ventura said.

“It’s still illegal. We still enforce the law.”