It was supposed to be what narcotics officers call a simple “knock and talk.”
But the undercover detectives, who said they flashed police badges, never had a chance to knock.
A gunman was hiding in the front seat of a 2005 BMW, parked in the driveway and, according to investigators, protecting a house where he was cultivating a flourishing marijuana nursery, on SW 60th Court, in a tidy middle-class neighborhood off Coral Way in West Miami-Dade.
It was just before 7 p.m. Tuesday. Residents were walking their dogs, watching the Olympics or sharing dinner when the gunman, seeing the lawmen approach, opened fire, shooting one of them three times before the officers fatally riddled him with lead.
Despite a bullet-proof vest, Miami-Dade Police Detective John Saavedra was shot in his thigh and his side, with third bullet lodged in his spleen. He was recovering following surgery at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
The sudden violence surprised neighbors on the residential road lined with trees and small yards. And less than a mile away, it also shocked the family of the man who died.
The shootings underscored South Florida’s reputation as the grow house capital of the nation, home to a violent and competitive narco-trafficking trade commanded by drug dealers running grow house networks like the cocaine cowboys of the 1980s.
Authorities are investigating whether the hydroponic lab is part of a larger grow house operation run by gangs that have proliferated in Miami-Dade since the mid-2000s. The fact that one of the suspects opened fire so swiftly also may have been a sign that he suspected that the undercover officers, in spite of their badges, were actually part of a rival gang. Some drug gangs have been known to pose as police officers, complete with uniforms, police vests and guns, to rob competitors of their cash and crops.
“At the end of the day, they were still police officers, they were wearing badges and they identified themselves as officers,” said Miami-Dade spokesman Detective Javier Baez. He added that at least one of the police vehicles at the house was a marked Miami-Dade police cruiser.
The team of officers and an FBI agent were part of the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force based in Doral. HIDTA has led numerous grow house crackdowns in South Florida, including busting an elaborate family-run ring in June that ran 20 grow houses scattered across Miami-Dade. That operation, run by the Santiesteban clan, involved kidnapping and murder, according to authorities.
The grow house business is so prolific in South Florida that it has spawned a cadre of lawyers who label themselves “grow house attorneys” specializing in defending the wealthy pot farmers. Each plant can produce one pound of pot, which has a street value of $4,500 — double that if they sell it in New York or New Jersey, authorities say.
Tuesday’s undercover operation, however, was supposed to be low-key. The officers, acting on a tip, conducted a surveillance of the house, at 2325 SW 60th Ct. During their stakeout, detectives saw a black Toyota sedan pull into the driveway. A man, identified as Luis Lazaro Esevanell, 59, exited the car and went into the house. A short time later, he re-emerged.
In a “knock and talk,” officers approach the owner or caretaker of the house and try to persuade him to permit a search of the residence. If the resident says no, the cops can ask for a warrant.