CHICAGO — The owner of an indoor garden center feared he would be driven out of business after DEA stakeouts of his store were exposed in stories posted by Patch.
It turns out he could not have been more wrong.
"It's been nothing but support," said Joe Vota, the proprietor of Midwest Hydroganics on Renwick Road.
"The say, 'We're not leaving you,'" Vota said of calls from customers. "The community's not letting this store close."
Vota's store was thrust into the national spotlight after Patch revealed the DEA and Shorewood police raided a 46-year-old woman's home in the early morning and charged her with misdemeanor marijuana possession. The month-long investigation of the woman, Angela Kirking, began after a member of a DEA task force staking out Midwest Hydroganics spotted her shopping there.
Kirking said she bought nothing more from Midwest Hydroganics than a small package of organic fertilizer for an edible hibiscus plant.
Patch then learned of a second DEA investigation prompted by a stakeout of Midwest Hydroganics. That case ended with a Channahon man pleading guilty to a felony marijuana charge.
Owen Putman, the Chicago spokesman for the DEA, declined to comment on the cases stemming from surveillance at Midwest Hydroganics but Charles B. Pelkie, the spokesman for the Will County State's Attorney's Office, said there have been a total of 11 investigations in the last 18 months.
Eight of those cases were prosecuted in Will County. One led to the seizure of 120 pot plants, 29,150 grams of marijuana and 178 ecstasy pills, Pelkie said, and ended with a Plainfield man getting sentenced to four years in prison. Another case, he said, involved the seizure of 71 pot plants, 8,333 grams of marijuana, three pistols, a revolver and a rifle.
Nine grams of cannabis were allegedly found in Kirking's Shorewood home after she was held at gunpoint by flak-jacketed agents and police. That was the smallest amount allegedly found in the 11 cases, Pelkie said.
"We charge the cases that the DEA brings to our office and we charge them appropriately," he said. "When they bring us felony cases we charge felony cases. When they bring us misdemeanor cases we charge misdemeanor cases."
Vota questioned why the DEA was spending its time and resources at his store instead of staking out street corners in Chicago for heroin dealers. He also wondered what the difference was between selling products that might be used to grow marijuana and selling spray paint, which could be inhaled as an intoxicant or used by vandals.
"Does the DEA or this (agent) stake out Home Depot to make sure you're buying spray paint to paint a chair?" he said.
And Vota believes the general public shares that sentiment, based on his boost in business and the encouraging calls he received. Last weekend, he said, 35 orders were placed through his website. He averages less than five in a month. And a local organization recently stopped by to support him—and to buy his merchandise.
"A women's gardening club came in on Saturday because they read about Ms. Kirking," he said. "They bought 47 bags of soil for their gardening club. They'd never been here before."
Business has been so strong that Vota hired two employees to help him fill Internet orders. One started Monday and the other is scheduled to begin later in the week.
"I'm putting people to work," Vota said, "not taking them away from their families."
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