If you spend much time online, chances are you have stumbled upon photos often referred to as “The Marijuana house” or “The Great Tennessee Pot Cave”. The photos are of a seemingly normal house with a huge marijuana grow operation hidden in a cave beneath the house. While these pictures have made their rounds on the internet for years, details on the story behind the photos are vague at best. I have always wondered the real story behind the photos of this amazing setup. The full story.
There is a hidden passageway from the home to the cave that leads to a corridor with cinder block walls and concrete ceiling and floor. The corridor slopes down 40 feet into the converted cave. The cave was complete with air conditioning, full bathroom, and a kitchen with a fully stocked pantry. An excape hatch lets out steps from the home and has a hydraulic jack that lifts a trap door which is hidden with a boulder.
The growing operation was complete with an irrigation system to water the 400 – 500 plants that were between 6 and 12 inches tall and the 400 – 500 additional plants that were as tall as 6 feet. To power the sophisticated lighting and climate control system that kept the caves temperature at 87 degrees the growers had illegally spliced into county power lines.
The growers would hire about a half-dozen Hispanic workers in Arizona, and then drive them to Tennessee. For part of the journey the windows on the van would be covered so the workers did not know where they were.
Police were eventually tipped off to the operation after the electric company discovered the missing electricity and sent crews to investigate. There are unsubstantiated rumors that man with a shot gun threatened an electric company worker in a confrontation at the houses massive front gate.
On December 14th 2005, the house was raided by national and local law enforcement agencies and three men were arrested in connection with the growing operation. Brian Gibson and Greg Compton were arrested in Tennessee and are believed to be the day-to-day managers of the operation. Fred Earl Strunk, thought to be the mastermind behind the operation, was arrested at his home in an affluent area of Gainesville Florida.
Investigators estimated that the operation could bring in as much as 6 to 8 million dollars per year and could produce about 100 pounds of processed marijuana per harvest.
Fred Strunk, is said to have had at least 6 identifications with various names in his home along with $50,000 in cash. Strunk was held on a 15 million dollar bond which was reduced to 1 million dollars with the provision he provide a high school or college yearbook with his photo to prove is identity.
Fred Strunk pleaded guilty in March 2006 to charges of growing marijuana, money laundering and theft. He received concurrent sentences of 18 years for the drug charge and 12 years for the theft charge. He will have to serve at least 30% of his sentence, or more than five years, before becoming eligible for parole. He also must repay Tri-County Electric a total of $60,001 for electric power he stole from the utility to power the underground lights and other equipment in the cave.
Gibson and Compton, the “managers” of the operation, received less time in exchange for agreeing to testify against Strunk.
The Fire and Rumors
On December 5th 2006, the house and a neighboring home about a half mile away, caught fire and burned to the ground. The suspicious fires were intentionally set and sparked a wave of speculation about who, and more importantly, why someone would burn the houses. A popular theory is that the police possibly missed a key piece of evidence during the investigation. Maybe documents or information leading to more underground grows or other co-conspirators in the operation. With the attention to detail that went into hiding the huge grow operation, it seems logical that the police could have missed something small and well hidden within the home. We will probably never know the true reason, but the fact that a second house was also destroyed, fuels suspicion about how large this operation really was (or possibly still is).
There are rumors that a neighbor was found murdered in a house close to the pot cave about 3 or 4 months before the bust. The rumor also says that 2 dead immigrants were found a few days later in the same area. I was unable to confirm whether or not the bodies were actually ever found.
On December 8th, 2007, the famous pot cave was auctioned off on behalf of the state. The auction was held in what had been one of the underground growing rooms in the previous marijuana operation. About 170 people, mostly spectators, came to watch the court-ordered sale unfold about 90 feet below ground.
Roth Kase, a Wisconsin-based maker of European-style cheeses, won the auction with a bid of $285,000. The auction included 7 acres of land, the high-tech cave, the burned remains of the house, and a smaller house located behind the original which was believed to house the garden workers. The property was sold pretty much “as is” and even still included a majority of the equipment used in the growing operation, including the white buckets and grow lights.
Tour starts around 2:30.