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I was there with two colleagues to look into the story of a professor and a school librarian prosecuted for growing nearly 200 marijuana plants in the basement of a modest single-story home. We noticed it was a neighborhood of neat frame houses and low-cut lawns and singing birds—the kind of place where home owners obviously take care of their property.
As if we needed confirmation, a huge barking dog burst out of a home on the corner, followed by a pug of a man—short and strong, with his hands on his hips. "I was about to shoot you," he announced.
He was kidding—more or less. His name was Johnny Sandoval, he's a Chicago cop, and he wanted to make sure no one was messing with his car, his home, or his neighbor's.
I made a mental note not to mess with anybody's anything on Johnny's block.
But when we said we were there to take a look at the small green house across the street, Sandoval jumped off his porch and waved at us to follow. "That house?" he said. "I can tell you all about that house. They were growing marijuana in there, and now he's been convicted and sentenced to probation . . ."
He knew the whole saga of the grow house bust and recounted it for us with a few chuckles. He didn't have much sympathy for the two educators caught up in it. "We want them to be gone from here," he said.
Millions of people may enjoy smoking marijuana, and millions of others think it should be decriminalized or simply enjoy cracking jokes about it. But almost nobody wants to live next to a place where it's grown illegally.
In addition to his home across the street, Sandoval owns the house just to the south of the former grow house. And in short order he introduced us to the neighbors to the north, Rudy and Janet Zavala. Rudy is a police officer at Great Lakes naval base.
"So that's the funny thing," Sandoval said. "The houses on both sides are owned by cops."
The educators, Adrian Ortiz and Heidi Keller, bought the green house from the family of "the old Polish lady" who lived there until she became ill a couple years ago, Sandoval said. "Even then, she was in her 80s and she'd be out there on the porch in her nightgown smoking."
The Zavalas remembered when Ortiz and Keller first looked at the property in the fall of 2009. "They seemed like nice people," said Janet. "They said it was for his nephew, but nobody ever moved in."
One night two men pulled up in a van and took some equipment inside. Everyone thought it was a big-screen TV—not a fan and filter system to suck away the pot smell.
Ortiz was arrested before he could harvest any of the marijuana he grew. He was lucky he wasn't found out even sooner. Sandoval was on leave and deployed in Iraq at the time, and Rudy Zavala was fighting cancer.
On February 19, 2010, police officers broke in through the back door and found the growing operation in the basement. The neighbors were surprised—but it kind of made sense.
"I'd wondered what they were up to when the basement windows were covered," Rudy said.
It also explained why he'd seen guys sitting in a car just down the street—the police had been staking the place out. "I'd walk up to ask them what they were doing here and they'd just drive off."
The neighbors shake their heads. They still find it odd, even funny. But it's also a problem—an ongoing problem.
Ortiz and Keller still own the modest green house. The grass is cut and the mail is picked up. But they're not too popular in the community.
Sandoval wants the state's attorney to take the house in court. "We want a family in here," he says. "Why leave an empty house in the neighborhood?"
Under state narcotics laws, money and property used to manufacture or transport illegal drugs can be seized. But police and prosecutors almost never go after houses.
The office of Cook County state's attorney Anita Alvarez won't comment on any part of the grow house story, including the future of the grow house on Exchange. But it's probably too late for them to do anything about it. By law they would have needed to initiate proceedings within three months of the marijuana plants being found—that is, more than two years ago. And they didn't.
Ortiz and Keller won't comment, and their attorneys say they don't know what the couple's plans are.
As for Sandoval, as he walked us to our car, he assured us that he didn't actually have a gun with him—just a knife.
"You guys take care," he said.