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Boss of Miami-Dade hydroponic pot ring pleads guilty to conspiracy

In June 2009, Derrick and Yadira Santiesteban were packing suitcases full of marijuana at their Southwest Miami-Dade home for a smuggling trip to New York.

When the husband left the house to get more bags, several gunmen posing as police officers barged into the residence and stole about 50 pounds of the pot — triggering a retaliatory plot to kidnap one of the robbers, who would later be killed.

On Friday, Derrick Santiesteban, the boss of a family-run marijuana grow-house ring that made millions selling potent hydroponic pot from Miami to New York, faced his reckoning.

The 30-year-old high school dropout pleaded guilty to a kidnapping charge that resulted in the slaying of the robber, Fidel Ruz Moreno, on June 28, 2009. He also pleaded guilty to conspiracies to distribute marijuana and launder money.

His wife, Yadira, 37, also pleaded guilty to money-laundering conspiracy, in a plea agreement crafted to spare her severe punishment.

Also Friday, a grow-house caretaker, Raul Fabian Ramirez Jr., 32, pleaded guilty to the marijuana-distribution conspiracy offense.

The kidnapping conviction carries a mandatory life sentence for Santiesteban. But he might see that punishment reduced by a federal judge if prosecutors William Athas and Pat Sullivan make the recommendation, based on his assistance with their continuing investigation.

The probe is focusing on Miami-Dade police officer Roderick Silva, who patrolled the Hammocks area of West Kendall and was suspended with pay in June 2009, records show. The officer, suspected of helping the Santiesteban ring, is the brother of another grow-house caretaker, David Silva, who is charged in the case.

Last week, another member of the Santiesteban crew pleaded guilty to conspiracies to distribute marijuana and to kidnap the rival gang member, admitting as well that he witnessed the kidnapping victim’s murder after the man stole the suitcases of pot.

Juan Felipe Castaneda’s plea agreement signaled a major development in the federal government’s crackdown on one of South Florida’s largest suspected grow-house operations.

The Santiestebans — headed by the patriarch, Mariel boatlift refugee Gilberto Sr., and joined by sons Derrick, Gilberto Jr., Alexander and Darvis — were charged last June with operating 20 hydroponic marijuana grow houses since 2004.

The operation yielded at least 1,146 potent pot plants that produced millions of dollars in profits, authorities say.

Castaneda admitted he collaborated with alleged ringleader Derrick Santiesteban, accused shooter Norge Manduley and other members of the organization in June 2009.

Santiesteban’s plan was to abduct and detain the robber, Ruz Moreno, until the stolen pot was recovered, according to a statement filed with the defendant’s plea agreement.

But the plot went horribly wrong.

At a Southwest Miami-Dade intersection, Derrick Santiesteban drove his Mercedes SUV in front of Ruz’s van. Castaneda and Manduley pulled up behind him in a pickup truck to hem in the target.

Then Castaneda and Manduley carjacked Ruz’s van, with Ruz still inside. Santiesteban told them to meet him at a family grow house in the area.

En route, Castaneda witnessed Manduley struggle with Ruz in the back of the van and then shoot him with a revolver, Castaneda said in a court statement.

Castaneda said that after Ruz’s body was tossed out into the street, he saw Manduley “approach [the] prone body and repeatedly strike [Ruz] about the head with the butt of revolver that Manduley was wielding,” according to a statement filed with the plea agreement.

Homicide detectives are also trying to determine whether an unsolved April 2006 slaying of a teenager in West Kendall is linked to a Santiesteban grow house in the area.