In December 2005, Fred Strunk was arrested for his part in constructing and operating a secret marijuana farm in a cave under their house. Their pot farm was located on Dixon Springs Road in eastern Trousdale County, Tennessee. This area is about 40 miles northeast of Nashville. Here is the story.
THE AMAZING POT FARM!!
Written by Rick Archer, November 2006
Long ago I concluded that marijuana is probably less damaging than alcohol. But since alcohol is legal, whenever it is time to relax a little, I have decided it is much easier to drink than get stoned. That said, I don't worry too much about people who smoke pot. I think the laws against marijuana are way behind the times.
I smoked marijuana several times when I was in college (40 years ago). Yes, I found smoking pot worked wonders for music, food, and you know what. But then I noticed how difficult it was to concentrate on my studies the day after. Realizing my problem was directly related to marijuana use the previous evening, I decided there was no way I was going to jeopardize my grades again. So that was the end of that. I chose the Margarita over the Marijuana.
I hate hard drugs and I dislike the violence associated with them. At the same time, I openly admit I got a huge kick out of the story you will soon be reading. I have no idea how to explain the hypocrisy inherent to my interest in this story. Even though I am a law-abiding citizen with a clean slate, I guess I have a dark side that was impressed by the guts and the ingenuity of the men who put together the pot farm.
Over twenty years ago I had an indirect experience with a sophisticated marijuana operation. One morning in 1985 I opened the morning paper to discover that one of my SSQQ dance students had been arrested. Goodness gracious, he had been busted for operating a pot farm! With morbid fascination, I read the details of how one of our fellow dancers had been taken into police custody for operating a marijuana farm up in the hill country outside of Austin.
The man’s name was Robert. Since Robert was a very popular guy at the studio, naturally we were all pretty shocked. Although he was considered a bit of a rogue, Robert was friendly and outgoing. No one had a clue what he had been up to in his spare time.
Using agriculture skills he gained at Texas A&M, Robert had devised a state-of-the-art greenhouse complete with grow lights and a sprinkler system that operated automatically. The pot farm basically ran itself. Robert only visited the place once a week until it was time to harvest the crop.
I don’t remember exactly how Robert got caught, but my feeble memory suggests someone who lived in the sparsely populated rural hills noticed how odd it was to have the lights on in the dark of the early AM. Curious, the neighbor walked over for a closer look. Once the person figured out what was going on, he alerted the authorities who decided to stake out the building until Robert showed up. Surprise, surprise.
Robert did NOT want to go to jail. Robert told us he was just the caretaker for someone else who put up the money (no, it wasn't me!) But Robert had been caught red-handed. Despite trying every legal maneuver he could think of, Robert ended up serving a couple years of jail time.
As for me, I live life on the straight and narrow. But that doesn't keep me from studying people like Robert with fascination. The last time I heard of Robert, he was running a business for men who wanted to marry Russian wives. From Russia With Love!! Same old Robert - always into risky business.
Some people just aren't cut out for the normal life. They would rather live life on the edge of danger. Our story now turns to another man - Fred Strunk - who risked everything for a secret marijuana cave.
THE GREAT TENNESSEE DRUG BUST
In December 2005, Fred Strunk, Brian Gibson, and Greg Compton were arrested for their part in constructing and operating a secret marijuana farm in a cave under their house.
Their pot farm was located on Dixon Springs Road in eastern Trousdale County, Tennessee. This area is about 40 miles northeast of Nashville.
Trousdale County is not exactly a well-known center for criminal activity. Located in the hills of rural northern Tennessee, Trousdale is the smallest county in the state.
This story seemed like an episode straight out of the Dukes of Hazzard - three super-smart rogues trying to outwit the hick country sheriff! However, this time it was the police who came away the winner.
What the police discovered was nothing short of amazing. Operating on reports of suspicious activity, they raided a beautiful A-frame home built in the middle of nowhere. From the outside, the pot house looked like a beautiful vacation home out in the woods, but investigators quickly realized the exterior served as a prop designed to conceal the amazing pot farm below. There was a lot more going on in that house than met the eye.
In an underground cavern located beneath the stylish A-frame home, the police found a sophisticated operation which grew as much as 100 pounds of marijuana every eight weeks. This secret high-tech underground cave seemed more likely to be part of a Hollywood drug movie too crazy to believe, except that in this case it was real.
Using two rooms, our clever crooks were able to generate 12 to 14 crops a year. Each crop had an estimated street value around $500,000 or more. Do the math. At this rate, 13 crops a year would bring in $6-8 Million.
That's a lot more than you or I make, yes? The difference is that you and I aren't going to jail. This incident became the biggest pot bust in Middle Tennessee history.
PICTURES OF THE POT FARM
Rick Archer's Note: As you read this story, please keep in mind I have absolutely no personal connection to this story.
I live in Houston, Texas. This happened in Tennessee. I have never met any of these people in my life.
One day in 2007 I received all the pictures posted here in an email that was being forwarded around the Internet. The email contained these fascinating pictures, but had no explanation attached. This is only a guess, but I think the email was created by one of the policemen who busted the pot farm.
I was so frustrated not to know the story!! Curious about the origin of the pictures, I researched the story on the Internet. Using Google, I came up with the answer. When I discovered the story behind the pictures, I combined the pictures from the email with the information I discovered, then added my own thoughts.
The house was built on top of a natural cave, but investigators say no one lived there. The house wasn’t even furnished. Hidden inside the house was a secret passageway into a cave.
A corridor led from the hidden doorway into the cave. The corridor had cinderblock walls, a concrete ceiling and floor.
The thick metal door to the secret passageway was held in place by a hydraulic motor. If someone didn't want you to enter, you would probably need a small bomb to get in.
Behind the hydraulic door, there was a 40 foot long sloping corridor that led downward to the cave.
The cave itself stretched 250 feet (nearly the length of a football field!) Inside the cave there were offices, living quarters, and a growing area. Our rogues spent no time at all in the house itself.
The office space came first, then a living area furnished with three or four colorful bunk beds for camping out in the cave, and a restroom with a shower and plenty of toiletries. Behind the restroom was a kitchen with a fully stocked pantry, air conditioning and microwave. All the comforts of home, only this cave was meant for business.
More than 1,000 marijuana plants were grown deep underground. There were two growing areas - one held starter plants and the other held maturing plants. Each room had its own irrigation system. The lights and climate control kept the air at the perfect temperature: 87 degrees.
One room housed 500 to 600 small marijuana plants. In the picture above, you can see the clever irrigation system laid on top of each 5 gallon bucket. A few well-timed drips a day worked wonders. Plants grew faster in this controlled environment than they would have grown naturally outside.
The second area had plants that were nearly ready to harvest. In this room you could see 500 to 600 plants as tall as six feet. Once the plants were harvested, their buckets were filled with new seedlings.
Just behind the growing area is the work space with all the equipment to keep the operation running.
Ironically, none of the three men who were charged with growing marijuana in that cave actually lived in Middle Tennessee. Nor did the investigators think the drugs were sold in Trousdale County. Apparently the growers thought that would be too dangerous so they took their crops elsewhere to sell. More likely they took it to nearby Nashville.
The operation was enormous. They would grow 100 pounds of pot every 8 weeks. The job of harvesting the marijuana was so big that they actually brought in outside labor!
To harvest the illegal crop, the men would hire a half-dozen Hispanic workers in Arizona and drive them all the way to Tennessee. For part of the journey the windows on the van would be covered so the workers did not know where they were. When they got close to home, they told the workers to put on blindfolds. They would drive the workers right into the cave, take off their masks, and let them out to begin working. (I wonder how on earth they talked these men into being blindfolded!)
And yes, the operation was quite profitable. The investigators said the men were growing enough marijuana to make $6 million to $8 million a year. Who would guess that farming could be so profitable!
THE SECRET ESCAPE ROUTE
In case the growers had to make a run for it, they built an escape route. It ran 150 yards from the cave to the surface.
First there was a hidden door in the ceiling of the pot growing area followed by a long ladder.
Just beneath the ground, there is another trap door. Here a hydraulic jack lifts the second trap door, which is hidden underneath a boulder. The escape hatch lets out 100 yards from the home. No one driving by would have any idea what lies beneath.
SO HOW DID THEY GET CAUGHT?
This place was a virtual modern fortress. In addition to the secret entrance and the secret escape hatch, there were surveillance cameras everywhere to warn the people inside of snoopers. With such a sophisticated and well-hidden operation, surely you wonder how did these villains ever got caught?
I wondered the same thing. In October 2006 my friend Gary Richardson sent me an email that contained all the pictures listed above. The pictures had captions included, but there was no story that accompanied the pictures. I wondered where the Pot Farm was located and what the story was. I asked Gary if he knew anything, but he replied he didn't know the story behind it.
I loved the pictures! But without the story, my imagination was going wild. What could possibly have tripped up such a terrific operation? Where did they make their mistake?
Unable to be satisfied with just the pictures, I decided to give the Internet and Google a try. I had one very big clue: the first picture said "a house in Tennessee." So I typed in "marijuana bust tennessee". Within seconds, I had the story. Isn't Google incredible?
Now I was able to learn how they got caught. I will give you the answer in a moment, but first see if you can guess. One of the possibilities below is correct.
Exorbitant cash expenditures made police suspicious.
A truck carrying marijuana got pulled over by State Police.
Electrical disruptions in the area made officials suspicious.
Husband cheated on wife and wife turned him in for revenge.
Argument about how to split the money turned one man into a rat.
Putting too much cash in one bank made a bank official suspicious.
A Mexican farm worker hired to help harvest the crop tipped the authorities.
A dealer got caught and pointed the finger up the chain to save his own neck.
A nearby neighbor was curious to learn why no one seemed to live in the house.
A huge infrared heat signature gave them away. The heat alone coming out from the ventilation system would appear on any thermal imaging device.
Are you ready for the answer? If you guessed #2 "Electrical Power Disruptions", then go to the head of the class. Yes, suspicious fluctuations in the area's electricity led to their downfall. Personally, I wouldn't have guessed this was the answer in a thousand years!
The men started stealing electricity from the local power lines to supply their fortress. They spliced into wires and caused power disruptions to the local area. Supervisors at the local power company were losing power somewhere and decided to look into it.
Back when Fred Strunk and company were building their invisible fort, the local electric company was asked to install a much larger transformer than usually required by a residence. But once the growing operation began, Fred and his gang found to their dismay they still did not have enough electrical power to operate the grow lamps required to raise 1,000 marijuana plants at a time.
They were afraid to ask the electric company to install more power since this would be a very suspicious request without a "reason" to explain the greater need.
Afraid to risk exposure by making a second request, this left them with two choices: reduce the size of their operation or steal the needed electricity. They chose the latter path. The men spliced into the Tri-County Electric line and began to steal electricity.
The huge thirst for electricity proved to be their downfall. The electricity company detected that a large amount of electricity was disappearing. Since there was no simple answer to account for the problem, the company had no choice but to track the problem down.
Investigators eventually discovered the illegal splices and alerted the police.
(RICK ARCHER'S NOTE ONE: I wish I could be more specific with the details about how they got caught. As I previously mentioned, I have absolutely no direct connection to this story at all. Everything I report is something I gained from research on the Internet. I am very curious myself to learn more details. I must have read through a dozen different stories on the Internet and what I have shared with you is all I could find out.
For a while, I wondered why the articles were so were vague when discussing how the police tracked Fred down. After all, the same stories gave a thorough description of Fred's punishment. After giving it some thought, I decided that the lack of information was deliberate. Most of the articles I read were from Tennessee newspapers.
Since the newspaper articles about Fred's Pot Bust were written from interviews with Law Enforcement, I suppose the police didn't want to be too candid about how they got onto to his trail and take the chance that other potential bad guys might learn from Fred's mistake.)
(RICK ARCHER'S NOTE TWO: In April 2008, I received an email that answers some of the questions I raised above. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the email, but my gut feeling is that this account is correct. I appreciate the help!)
MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE DOWNFALL OF THE POT FARM
Sent: Thursday, April 17, 2008 9:13 AM
Subject: Pot farm information
"I received your page in an email and have more information for you.
My brothers and I hunt just outside of Hartsville, TN (near Trousdale) and one of my brothers lives there. The following story comes from my brother who knows many people up there.
He told me that an electric company official went to the property to investigate the power spike. He went to the front gate. Yes, the geniuses had an "estate" gate that you would imagine would be at the front of a mansion. The official could not raise anyone from the elaborate intercom system and hopped the side fence. He went to the house; found that there was nothing inside. The idiots didn't even put up heavy curtains or such to hide the vacant nature of the home. When the official was looking in the window someone came out of the woods with a shotgun and told him to get off of the property. Now, they may not be the most intelligent people in the world, but if you are doing something illegal, wouldn't you try to make the official leave without pissing him off? Well, you guessed it; the official went to the police and reported the suspicious incident.
My brothers and I have talked about this for a few years, and, being the stereotypical 'Monday morning quarterbacks", would have set up some other LEGAL operation going to account for the power spike. Our other explanations: small factory, brewery, computer server bank that could be turned off and on…
Also, a few more points: They found a dead neighbor a few months before the bust. It is thought that one of the escape hatches came out onto his property and the victim encountered one of the pot farmers. A few days after that they found two dead immigrants on outlying properties. It is thought that the pot farmers were tying up loose ends.
I hope this gives you more information. This story was better than most cop movies."
A RESPONSE TO THE LETTER ABOVE
Sent: Wednesday, March 18, 2009 10:26 PM
Subject: pot farm
I was doing some web surfing and came across your page on the Tennessee pot farm. I grew up here in Nashville. All I have to say is Tennessee is the second largest producer of Marijuana in the country, next to California. It is very much a part of Appalachian culture and is used by just about everyone. Everything comes through Nashville. So much is produced and trafficked through here. And everyone knows everyone. It's a given here, you never say names and you never talk about who you know, because everyone knows everyone.
I mean there is a serious underground marijuana movement in Tennessee. The old farmers have taught the kids everything they know. Now all the kids are grown up and pulling the weight themselves. Anyways, in answer to your question, how did Freddie get caught? It was a snitch. He didn't want to pay what the wizard was asking, got pissed, and snitched. It was that simple. His whole operation went down because of some jerk. People out here are pros. It's never "carelessness" that gets them busted. It's always some greedy kid new to the game, thinks he can push his own prices. The snitch told the electric company, who then investigated.
I don't know what happened to the informant, but I'm sure he was probably a low life that got busted on some other charge. As for the dead immigrants in that other letter, I think that was bull. These guys were professional gardeners, not murderers, I mean its weed, not crack.
Anyways, you're probably already scratching your head wondering why someone is replying to something you posted in 2007.
DOES CRIME PAY?
The ancient axiom says "Crime doesn't pay". The Tennessee Pot Farm case gives an ironic slant to this saying.
If the men had simply "paid" for their electricity, no one would ever have said a thing. But they had a problem. Once they realized they didn't have enough current to run their operation to capacity, they had three choices:
They could run their operation at half-capacity and settle for a slower return on their enormous investment.
They could ask the electric company to give them more juice and risk revealing their setup.
They could steal the extra power and hope no one would notice.
You already know what their decision was. And their gamble paid off for a while. Mastermind Fred Strunk lived the good life with an expensive home in Florida plus a huge yacht.
But now Fred Strunk, 63, is not only facing 18 years of prison, he lost every cent he put into his operation. His house and all his holdings were confiscated by the government. The pot house is now up for sale! In addition, he is expected to reimburse Tri-City Electricity $61,000 for the energy he stole.
$61,000. That's quite a light bill.
INSIDE THE CRIMINAL MIND
Did you enjoy the pictures of the high-tech operation? Take a quick guess who published the pictures. No, it wasn't me. The pictures were published by the authorities who busted Fred and Friends. Like trophy hunters, the crime fighters wanted the world to see the evidence of their good police work.
Obviously the police were proud of themselves and rightly so. I can't imagine that Fred is your every-day run of the mill criminal. In the game of "Cops and Robbers", it had to be a thrill to catch a smart guy like Fred.
Truth be told, back when Fred was building his underground fortress, I would have put money that Fred would get away with it. Given what little I know about catching bad guys, I cannot imagine how an operation this well planned would ever be caught!
Therefore I suppose another reason to publicize this remarkable drug bust was to discourage other would-be pot farmers from trying as well.
One reason to publish the story is to make a point to all the bad guys out there. If someone as smart as Fred can be caught, what chance does anyone else have? Better not try it!
SO WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?
As I put together this article, I realized that I admired Fred for his enormous gamble. In the process, I began to wonder why a law-abiding citizen like myself was on the side of the bad guys instead of the good guys. After all, these guys weren't exactly Robin Hood. They were drug dealers. I examined my feelings. Why was I vaguely sympathetic?
Embarrassing as it is, I have to admit sometimes I root for the bad guy.... depending on the crime of course. Growing up, my favorite TV show was the Fugitive! For that matter, Oceans 11, The Score, Topkapi, The Italian Job, After the Sunset, and the Cary Grant classic To Catch a Thief are just a few examples of movies that come to mind about smart thieves who risk it all to pull off dangerous capers.
We go to see movies like these because they are fun. I don't know about you, but as long as no one gets hurt, I usually root for the bad guys to get away with it. Nor do I think I am alone. Movies like these usually do good box office. If the thief is clever and there is no victim crying with grief, it is fun to root for the bad guy. On the other hand, if the bad guy is some crook like Bernie Madoff, I say lock him up for life. Obviously I am very conflicted.
In the movies, the bad guys often win. But that's the movies. In real life, Fred put it all on the line and lost everything. Fred lost his dream, his freedom, and millions of dollars. He is sentenced to be in prison till he is 81. This means Fred will likely be in his 70s before he gets parole. By the time he gets out I would imagine Fred will be a bit too old to give it another shot . And truth be told, I am sorry he got caught.
Hard drugs are one thing, but I guess memories from my hippie days remind me that marijuana isn't that dangerous. Furthermore, as crimes go, from what I read about Fred's escapade, there weren't any suffering victims.
But then on the other hand, if Fred hadn't gotten caught, we wouldn't have had his fascinating story to tickle our fantasies, now would we?
And of course you have to wonder if someone like Fred is smart enough to come up with an operation this clever, why didn't he consider trying to use his talents in a legal activity?
Don't cheaters win some of the time? If it isn't Fred, then it is my old friend Robert trying to cash in on a strange scam like Russian wives.
The temptation to take a short cut is out there for all of us.
I suppose that is why the police decided to send pictures of Fred's demise flying around the Internet. Fred is living proof that crime doesn't pay. Tales like the capture of Fred the Marijuana Man keeps ordinary people like me from harboring even the slightest fantasy that pulling off a daring crime might actually succeed.
December 2006: Dixon Springs “Drug Cave” house burns
Macon Country Times
State and local authorities are investigating a Tuesday night, December 5 fire that destroyed a $1 million gated A-frame house in the Cato community of Trousdale County. Arson was strongly suspected in the 11 p.m. blaze, which brought firefighters from both Hartsville and Riddleton to the scene, and to the scene of a second fire which broke out at the same time and in the same general area, less than a mile from the Macon-Trousdale county line.
The resort-like home, located at 2125 Dixon Creek Road, hid an entrance to a sophisticated underground marijuana growing operation whose owner was arrested in December 2005. Authorities said a second home, located just a half mile away, also burned at about the same time Tuesday, pointing even more strongly to arson as the probable cause.
Metro Hartsville Sheriff's chief deputy Waylon Cothron said the state Fire Marshall and several other law enforcement agencies were investigating the cause of the fires.
The second fire, also called in at about 11 p.m., destroyed a vacant home undergoing renovation on the Scanty Branch Road. Formerly the residence of the late Edison Cornwell, the house which burned belonged to Raydean Gregory, according to Jerry Richmond of Hartsville radio station WTNK. “They'd been working on the house, thinking about putting in new windows, stuff like that,” said Richmond. “The shame of it is there was an old abandoned house that needed to be burned right next to the good house that was destroyed.”
“Obviously it was determined to be acts of arson because we had two unoccupied houses within a half mile of each other that burned at the same time,” Chief Cothron said.
The lavish, gated home, which had been confiscated by the state, had been used by Fred Strunk, 63, of Florida and two other men, Brian Gibson and Greg Compton to hide a large “pot cave” equipped with artificial lighting and irrigation system. The elaborate operation included an office and bunk room which could sleep eight, and escape hatches that could have been used to elude law enforcement.
The drug operation was one of the largest found in Tennessee, with capacity to grow as many as 800 marijuana plants and was alleged to have produced millions of dollars in illegal proceeds. Strunk pleaded guilty in Wilson County Criminal Court last summer to charges of manufacture of marijuana, money laundering and theft. Strunk had been lodged in the Macon County Jail for the period of time before his trial.
The other two men arrested with Strunk are also now serving time in connection with the crimes. The property in Trousdale County, along with boats, a van and other property in Florida, were also seized by the state and confiscated when Strunk was arrested.
“We deal with arson in this business on a regular basis,” said Assistant District Attorney David Durham, “Sometimes there is no motive or could simply be an act of vandalism. It could be a conspiracy. It could be a number of different things,” Durham said.