Luis Hernandez-Gonzalez ran a Miami indoor gardening supply store favored by marijuana growers from across the nation — some legal, some not. They bought light bulbs, fans and fertilizers with names such as "Bud Candy" and "Big Bud."
His business was so lucrative that he had to stash $22 million in buckets hidden above a closet in his home.
It wasn't doing business with pot dealers that ultimately landed him in legal trouble — it was how he tried to skirt federal banking regulations. A judge on Wednesday sentenced Hernandez-Gonzalez to just over five years in prison for making a series of illegal bank deposits intended to hide his growing fortune from the federal government.
The sentence was disappointing for defense lawyers who cast him as a brilliant businessman forced into financial shenanigans because banks would not accept cash from businesses linked to the marijuana industry.
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"He was a victim of his own success. He made so much money. So much of it was cash that he couldn't end up putting it into the banks," said defense lawyer Philip Reizenstein.
Gonzalez-Hernandez, 46, was sentenced nearly two years after county narcotics detectives raided his Miami Lakes house, finding the money stuffed in 24 orange “Homer’s All-Purpose” buckets from Home Depot. The story, first reported by the Miami Herald, drew international attention as images of the huge pile of cash went viral.
The cash was hidden in a secret compartment above a closet, while another $600,000-plus was found at his business. He pleaded guilty in February, agreeing to forfeit $18 million of the cash stash.
Hernandez-Gonzalez's legal team hoped to capitalize on changing attitudes about marijuana across the nation and his work selling to legitimate growers in states where the herb is legal for recreational and medicinal use. Florida only recently legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes, although the trade is still small and the herb cannot be smoked. Miami has long been a hub for illegal indoor marijuana growhouses.
The defense portrayed Hernandez-Gonzalez as an immigrant success story, a self-taught genius who mastered the science of indoor hydroponic gardening and secured the lucrative rights to sell a superb fertilizer favored by marijuana growers.
He earned a degree in electrical engineering in Cuba and came to the United States from Cuba in 1994. He later opened Blossoms Experience, which netted $68.1 million over a decade, of which $42 million was used to run the business.
"He worked six days a week. He lived in a middle-class home. He employed his family as a means of helping support them. In other words, this is not a case of a criminal living a high-flying lifestyle funded from ill-gotten gains," according to the motion by Reizenstein and lawyer Frank Gaviria.
His defense lawyers likened him to the "people who sold mining equipment to the Gold Rush miners" — but they acknowledged he wasn't naive.
"He knew who his customers were. He wasn't selling to abuelitas in Hialeah who were growing lettuce and tomatoes," Reizenstein told U.S. Judge Robert Scola during Wednesday's sentencing hearing.
Hernandez-Gonzalez was long on the radar of police detectives, who often followed his customers after they left his store. In 2005, the Drug Enforcement Administration said he confessed to selling six pounds of marijuana as agents watched — although, inexplicably, he was not charged or convicted.
Five years later, a police confidential source secretly recorded Hernandez-Gonzalez discussing how to grow marijuana, even offering to purchase the man's next crop. Again, he was not charged.
Then in 2016, investigators raided his businesses and home after he was caught on a phone wiretap giving growing advice to South Florida marijuana growers arrested by federal agents in Tennessee. Miami-Dade police spent more than a day exhaustively counting the huge stacks of bills.
Hernandez-Gonzalez was first charged in state criminal court for marijuana trafficking and money laundering. But he was soon indicted federally after agents from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service uncovered the suspicious bank deposits. He used U.S. post office money orders for deposits, said Antonio Gomez, the inspector in charge of the Miami division.
"At the end of the day, it's about stopping the misuse of the postal service in furtherance of illegal narcotics trafficking," Gomez said of the case.
Agents found he was intentionally "structuring" bank deposits, staggering them out, each under $10,000 to avoid the attention of the feds to pay for supplies for his thriving company.
"The defendant hid the money so the government would not see how much money [he] was making by selling to marijuana growers and traffickers," federal prosecutor Timothy Abraham wrote to the court.
Judge Scola was careful to point out that he was not sentencing Hernandez-Gonzalez for marijuana but for the financial crimes.
"Maybe, 100 years from now, people will look back and be laughing that marijuana was illegal," Scola said.