HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — Two people were in custody after Egg Harbor Township police found what they called an “elaborate” marijuana-growing facility in the basement of house in Hamilton’s Mizpah section Friday morning.
Police identified the man and woman arrested as 26-year-old Luis Alba and his girlfriend, 23-year-old Miluska Jimenez-Espinoza. The two had rented the house in the 6900 block of Harding Highway, police said. A 3-year-old child was removed from the home and placed with a family member, police said.
The welfare of the child and his care was referred to the Division of Child Protection and Permanency for further inquiry.
Egg Harbor Township police Detective Capt. Christopher Ruef said officers originally went to the house as part of a credit-card fraud investigation. Police said the cards were allegedly used to steal more than 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel having an estimated value of $2,000, which was stored in a series of small canisters in the backyard and a backroom.
However, after using a search warrant, Ruef said, police found 87 marijuana plants worth approximately $175,000, approximately 87 pounds once harvested. The self-contained setup grew the plants in water, hydroponically.
Police alleged the pair was stealing electricity from Atlantic City Electric lines. Officials estimated that more than $7,000 of electric service was stolen from the utility in order to facilitate the marijuana growing operation inside the home.
Atlantic City Electric was at the house Friday, as were State Police, Hamilton Township police and officials from the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office.
In addition, police said, about $15,000 worth of stolen merchandise was seized from the home, along with two vehicles believed to have been used in the commission of the crimes. The merchandise was believed to be proceeds from the fraudulent credit card operation, police said. Credit card manufacturing equipment was recovered as evidence, they said.
Alba was charged on a warrant with first degree cultivation of marijuana, first degree distribution of marijuana and fourth degree possession of marijuana. police said. Bail was set by Judge H. Robert Switzer at $100,000 cash. Alba was additionally charged with several counts of credit card fraud and taken to the Atlantic County jail. Jimenez-Espinoza was charged with third degree credit card fraud and released on a summons.
Animal control was at the home, and took away a pet pig and two dogs.
The house was an isolated property in the western part of the county, on a busy road, surrounded by woods and with few neighbors. It had touches that suggested a family residence, including a basketball hoop in the front yard, a pink scooter and a swinging bench.
Throughout the morning, investigators traversed the lawn of the beige rancher with a shed and a box truck parked in the backyard. Traffic on Harding Highway slowed to observe the scene.
Thelayon Howard, the owner of Jonesy's Bar and Lounge, located down the road and in view of the home, said the family that lived there kept to themselves.
“They didn't socialize, didn't cause trouble,” said Howard. “They never came in here for a drink. At least I don't think they have." Howard said she had no idea of the situation until she saw the police commotion outside Friday.
Maritza Vega, the officer in charge at the local post office, said Mizpah is a small town and no one knew anything was going on at the home until Friday. People who came into the post office had been asking her if she heard about the police at the home and what she knew, she said. “They also saw an ambulance and we're worried, but heard rumors of a drug bust. People have been concerned."
Staff Writers Derek Harper and Wallace McKelvey contributed to this report.
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