In the basement of a house on South Exchange, investigators found lights hung from motorized tracks, a timer-based watering system, and nearly 200 pot plants.

On December 5, 2009, Cook County sheriff’s police sergeant Patrick Donovan spotted two men in a white, windowless cargo van on the loading dock of a shop called the Brew and Grow, tucked between Elston and the Kennedy expressway. Donovan watched from his car 40 yards away as the men—one of them medium height and stocky, the other tall and gangly—loaded large tables, fans, and four-foot filters into the van.

The Brew and Grow, which has since moved, sells tools and equipment for home beer making and hydroponic gardening, including the fertilizers and nutrients to grow everything from arugula to broccoli to marijuana. And Cook County sheriff’s police routinely stake out the store and other retailers like it, surveying who buys what.

There’s no evidence they’re interested in the broccoli growers.

As the van pulled away, Donovan trailed it 17 miles to a one-story house with green aluminum siding on the 10000 block of South Exchange. South of the Skyway and walking distance from the Indiana state line, it’s a quiet block of modest homes owned by city workers and Hammond casino employees.

From a safe distance, Donovan watched the van pull into a garage, and he was able to catch sight of the two men unloading the cargo. He then continued to follow the van as it left the house and drove another 11 miles to a condominium complex in Bridgeport.

Over the next few days, Donovan ran the van’s license plate number and discovered it had been rented by 45-year-old Adrian Ortiz. He pulled a digital image of Ortiz from a driver’s license database and recognized him as the stockier of the two men. Through a property search, Donovan discovered that Ortiz and a 47-year-old woman named Heidi Keller had purchased the house on Exchange six weeks earlier for $65,000.

At Donovan’s behest, a Cook County grand jury subpoenaed records from ComEd to see how much power the property on South Exchange was consuming. As Donovan was well aware, the type of lighting rig necessary to grow broccoli—or pot—consumes an inordinate amount of energy. After comparing the bill to those of two other houses on the same block, Donovan found that electrical use in Ortiz’s house had surged.

Donovan spent the next few weeks conducting surveillance on the house at different times of the day and night. Neighbors saw him and wondered why someone was sitting in a car on their street, but when they approached, Donovan drove off. He discovered that the basement windows of Ortiz’s house had been covered with dark plastic—and through a gap he could see “an extremely bright light.” He also repeatedly examined the garbage bins in the alley and found them empty—except once, when he discovered a single Jewel bag with a wet pot leaf inside.

With that leaf, authorities launched a case against Ortiz and Keller that would continue for more than two years.

Over the past year, the Reader has chronicled a number of problems with how marijuana laws are enforced in Chicago: they’re applied differently among different racial groups, clog the courts, and consume millions of dollars and thousands of hours that could be used on other critical needs.

Acknowledging the costly inconsistencies, city officials recently joined dozens of suburbs and downstate towns in decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of pot. Meanwhile, federal law enforcement officials are focused on breaking up the often-violent criminal networks that supply area marijuana. At the top of the feds’ list is the Mexico-based Sinaloa cartel, which—in a story that’s commonly cited as evidence of the operation’s reach—was found four years ago to be cultivating about 10,000 plants deep in a national forest in northern Wisconsin.

The thing is, the weed is going to come from somewhere—and nobody wants to get it from violent drug gangs. All of which raises an interesting question: What is a just way to deal with someone knowingly breaking the law by attempting to peaceably grow the marijuana that millions of ordinary and otherwise law-abiding people regularly consume?

In that context, it seems a bit surprising that the Cook County sheriff’s department has in recent years poured resources into targeting a different kind of marijuana source than the gangs and cartels under investigation by the feds: grow houses.

Investigations of this kind are laborious, relying on stakeouts, surveillance, subpoenas, and search warrants, followed by dramatic arrests, colorful press releases, and photographs that make the news. The sheriff’s police have even extended their investigations beyond the Cook County limits, to Romeoville, in Will County, and Chesterton, in northwest Indiana.

A grow-house operation “is in fact a criminal network,” says Frank Bilecki, a spokesman for Cook County sheriff Tom Dart. “What is the impact on the neighborhood when this type of operation is targeted by the competition? These houses are frequently located in residential neighborhoods.”

But while some of the busts have nabbed dealers with lengthy criminal records and caches of guns, others have netted nothing but cannabis plants—a product that millions of Americans believe is OK to buy and consume, though they have nowhere to go for it but black markets.

Ten weeks after the discovery of the pot leaf, on February 18, 2010, Donovan got a warrant to search the presumed grow house on South Exchange. The next day he and a team from the sheriff’s police department broke in through the back door and found the house empty. The kitchen had been partially torn out, but great care had been put into setting up the basement, where Donovan found nearly 200 cannabis plants, with an estimated street value of more than $200,000. The plants, about a month from budding, sat under lights hung from motorized tracks and were tended to by a timer-based watering system. A humidifier, fan, and four-foot filter also had been installed, apparently to remove the pungent smell.

Though they’d been wondering why no one ever moved in, neighbors were taken aback at the discovery. “They seemed like nice people when they were looking at buying the house,” says Janet Zavala, who lives next door. “The police asked me if I’d smelled anything, and I was like, ‘It’s winter!'”

Adrian Ortiz’s growhouse on South Exchange, which was flanked by homes occupied by cops.Credit: Andrea Bauer

Neighbors were also amazed that anyone would have tried to grow marijuana in that particular home, since the houses on both sides are owned by police officers. Zavala’s husband is a federal police officer at the Great Lakes naval base, and the house to the south is owned by a Chicago cop who was on leave and serving in Iraq at the time.

After discovering the grow operation, the sheriff’s police team immediately drove to the Bridgeport condominium.

They had no need to buzz the building’s door because as they walked up someone else was leaving. They caught the door before it closed and rode the elevator to Ortiz’s unit. He never knew they were coming.

What happened next would become the subject of a heated legal battle. According to Donovan, when he and the other law enforcement agents knocked on the door, Ortiz answered. They identified themselves and explained that they had searched the house on Exchange, discovered the plants, and intended to place him under arrest.

“We then asked if we could come inside and talk to him,” Donovan later testified. “To which he said yes.”

Donovan said Ortiz was calm: “It seemed like he knew why we were there.” He said he told Ortiz he had the right to remain silent and not incriminate himself by answering their questions.

Ortiz, an English-as-a-second-language instructor at UIC, couldn’t have been more cooperative, Donovan later recalled. The professor even directed the officers to a small bag of marijuana and a pipe before being led out of the apartment by two officers. Left in the apartment with two other officers was Ortiz’s girlfriend, Heidi Keller, a public school librarian. Even though Keller’s name was on the mortgage for the house on South Exchange and she lived with Ortiz in the Bridgeport condo, she had not been a suspect in the investigation.

But according to Donovan, she became belligerent. “Keller was extremely irate. She began kind of yelling and demanding to know why we were there and where we were taking [Ortiz]. As I explained what was going on, trying to calm her down, she made a couple of utterances to me . . . She said that they were just casual users, it was just a family setting, that the mortgage [on Exchange] was small and that they would pay the mortgage through selling cannabis.”

Donovan said he then read Keller her rights and arrested her.

As Donovan described it, it was an easy bust—Ortiz and Keller willingly bared their souls as soon as he appeared at their door. When he would recount it again in court almost two years later, the story turned out to be a little different.

Ortiz and Keller were carted in a van to the county lockup in Maywood. Both were charged with misdemeanor possession of cannabis with intent to deliver and felony production of more than 50 cannabis plants. That same day, another pair of sheriff’s police deputies brought in for questioning the tall, gangly man who’d been with Ortiz at Brew and Grow: Aaron Cervantes, Ortiz’s college-age nephew. The police did not charge Cervantes with a crime. Instead, he signed a statement, agreeing to testify against his uncle.

Ortiz and Keller sat in separate cells through the weekend. Then, at 6:30 AM on Monday, Ortiz told sheriff’s police that he wanted to talk with them. After agreeing to waive his rights, Ortiz handwrote and signed a confession. “Due to recent money problems at my primary employer (UIC) my nephew and I . . . came up with the idea to grow weed in the basement. He supplied the clones and expertise, and I supplied the space and equipment.”

Ortiz added that he had never done this before, and the two had not delivered any marijuana or collected any money. He stressed that no weapons, minors, or other drugs were involved. “I would also like to say that Heidi Keller is blameless in this operation. At most, she could be considered a pawn, and the responsibility for this is mine and mine alone.”

The sheriff’s office issued a press release headlined “Librarian, teacher busted for marijuana operation.”

Keller was released that day on a $2,000 bond. Ortiz was released several days later after posting $3,000.

Within a month, a grand jury indicted the pair on charges of possession with intent to deliver 500 to 2,000 grams of cannabis—a Class 2 felony, one of the highest categories of crime in the state. They were facing as much as seven years in prison.

Room 602 at the criminal courthouse at 26th and California, where Ortiz and Keller’s trial would take place, is filled with a cast of public defenders, nattily dressed private criminal lawyers, bored cops, testy bailiffs, and defendants and their families, almost all of whom are black.

In this mix, Keller and Ortiz stood out. She’s white and grew up in the suburbs; he’s a light-skinned Hispanic who grew up on the southeast side and attended Whitney Young high school, one of the finest public schools in the state, before studying economics. Dressed professionally, they were frequently mistaken for lawyers. And unlike most defendants, who rely on public defenders, Ortiz and Keller were each able to hire their own experienced private attorneys to dig into the case.

“Due to recent money problems at my primary employer (UIC) my nephew and I . . . came up with the idea to grow weed in the basement. He supplied the clones and expertise, and I supplied the space and equipment.”
—An excerpt from Adrian Ortiz’s handwritten confession

Ortiz was represented by Catharine O’Daniel, best known for her high-profile defenses of alleged mobsters and a murder suspect jailed for six years before being acquitted. Keller’s lawyer was Robert Nemzin, another well-known courthouse personality with a long history of defending drug cases, weapons charges, and guys caught in scuffles with police.

The prosecutor was Erika Gilliam-Booker, a soft-spoken attorney first admitted to the bar in 2008 and now assigned to a special narcotics task force.

Ortiz and Keller declined to talk to us for this story. But from the outset, it was clear to O’Daniel that Ortiz’s confession limited his defense. His best strategy might have been to cut a deal and plea-bargain for probation, which is standard for first-time nonviolent offenders. But the state’s attorney’s office played hardball and demanded that Ortiz agree to serve three years in prison.

Keller was another story. There was little evidence against her other than her alleged outburst when the sheriff’s police came to arrest Ortiz. And Nemzin wasn’t buying that story. He didn’t believe Ortiz invited the police into their condo or directed them to a bag of marijuana on the table. And he was skeptical of the allegation that his client voluntarily confessed to the grow-house operation. Instead, he contended that Keller had been detained and interrogated almost from the moment the police arrived at their door. In the spring of 2010 the defense attorneys moved to have the statements made at the couple’s condo thrown out. After months of technical arguments, a hearing about the admissibility of the evidence was finally held in August 2011 in the courtroom of Judge Charles Burns, a blunt-talking former prosecutor.

The first witness was Keller, a quick-witted woman with piercing green eyes. Not surprisingly, her account of the bust was radically different from Donovan’s. Keller said she and Ortiz were in the living room of their condo on the evening of February 19, 2010, “just enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company,” when they heard two knocks at the door. When Ortiz opened it, “there were about four or five police officers who rushed into the apartment.”

Did they request permission before entering? Nemzin asked. “Absolutely not,” Keller said. “They immediately, I would say within about 30 seconds, handcuffed Adrian.”

While one officer took Ortiz into the hallway, she said, the others “crowded around me.” In particular, Keller added, one female officer was “on me like glue.”

Keller said she was in a bathrobe at the time. “I felt rather overwhelmed and shocked by the whole situation.” In short order Officer Donovan began asking her questions, Keller said.

“Did he advise you that you had a right to remain silent?” Nemzin asked.

“No,” said Keller.

“Did he advise you that anything you might say could be used against you in court?”

“No.”

“Did he advise you that you have the right to talk to a lawyer?”

“No.”

Donovan took the stand next. Sitting straight, with a military bearing and his hair buzzed short, he repeatedly stressed that police didn’t question Keller, who started blurting things after becoming “extremely irate.”

“As I explained what was going on, trying to calm her down, she made a couple of utterances to me,” Donovan said. “I read her her Miranda rights and placed her into custody.”

Nemzin bore in. He presented Donovan with a copy of a police report of the arrest and asked him to read the part where it said Ortiz invited or allowed them in.

“It doesn’t,” said Donovan.

“Officer, does it state anywhere in that report that Ms. Keller was agitated, irritated, irate, yelling, screaming?”

“No.”

Nemzin then asked Donovan about Keller’s “utterances.”

“You didn’t question her?”

“No,” said Donovan.

Nemzin read from the arrest report where Donovan described how he “asked” Keller a series of questions about the grow-house operation. He looked at Donovan on the stand. “You didn’t advise her of any of her rights before you asked her those questions,” Nemzin said. “Is that true?”

Donovan appeared uncomfortable. “The questions I asked her were more in the form of a statement,” he said.

Donovan was essentially dodging the central point of Nemzin’s cross-examination: that he had in fact interrogated Keller even though he said he hadn’t.

Nonetheless, Burns ruled that he had no choice but to side with Donovan because he found Keller’s demeanor on the stand “combative” and her testimony incredible. “I believe the testimony of the officer, as unpolished as it might have been,” Burns said. “He was trying to explain to her what was going on.”

After Burns denied the motion to suppress Keller’s statement, Nemzin muttered as he left the courtroom: “I was just coldcocked by that judge.”

Judge Stanley Sacks, who was assigned to Ortiz and Keller’s bench trial, was growing restless. A veteran who’s spent 24 years on the bench, including a stint as chief judge of narcotics court, Sacks has long been known for his mercurial personality—and a tendency to chastise witnesses and attorneys he finds less than credible. In 2004 his supervising judge briefly removed him from the bench and directed him to take anger-management classes after Sacks swore at a police officer during a trial.

For five straight months following the admissibility hearing, the Ortiz/Keller case was delayed by continuances, scheduling conflicts, and procedural motions. “Are you waiting for the messiah to show up?” Sacks asked prosecutor Gilliam-Booker at one point. She said no—just more lab results from the police.

At last the trial started on January 19, 2012—almost two years after Ortiz and Keller were arrested.

The first witness was Donovan, who testified that, as a 12-year veteran of the sheriff’s police, including eight years as a narcotics specialist, he’d received extensive training in the cultivation of cannabis “from the inception of the seed all the way to the growing, production, packaging, distribution.” Donovan added that he had made at least six seizures of marijuana during investigations that started with a stakeout outside the Brew and Grow.

Gilliam-Booker did not ask any questions about Keller’s alleged confession. Instead the prosecutor called to the stand Marie Jeffries, one of the three other arresting sheriff’s police officers—the one Keller said had been sticking to her like glue.

At first Jeffries recounted the same narrative that Donovan had given about the visit to the Bridgeport condo: she said Keller was “irate” and volunteered that she and Ortiz “were good people, and they used marijuana recreationally.”

Then Jeffries deviated from the script.

“Investigator Donovan was speaking with her, asking her a couple of questions, because at that point we don’t know that she was even involved in the grow,” Jeffries testified.

As she continued, Nemzin and O’Daniel exchanged looks of disbelief. Jeffries was clearly contradicting what Donovan said at the admissibility hearing: that Keller incriminated herself without the slightest prodding from him.

Nemzin pounced. “What Ms. Keller said, about this operation, those were responses to specific questions asked by Officer Donovan, weren’t they?” he asked.

“Yes, some were,” Jeffries said.

Nemzin then called Donovan back to the stand and asked him about Jeffries’s testimony.

“I threw out several questions,” Donovan conceded. “Questions that I didn’t want answered.”

By this point, Donovan had gone from testifying at the hearing that he didn’t ask any questions to testifying at the trial that he had asked several but didn’t want them answered.

Based on the contradictory testimony from the police officers, Nemzin asked Sacks to send the case back to Judge Burns for reconsideration of the admissibility of Keller’s statements to Donovan.

Sacks looked over Nemzin’s motion. “So what do you want me to do?” he snapped.

Before Nemzin could answer, Sacks groaned. “Oh, never mind. Let Judge Burns hear it.”

On March 2, both sides returned to Burns’s chambers. Nemzin called Officer Jeffries to the stand, and she reiterated that Donovan had in fact questioned Keller before her alleged confession.

What’s more, she said that when Keller stepped into her bedroom to change out of her bathrobe, Jeffries accompanied her—essentially confirming that Keller had been in custody when she was questioned, though Donovan had originally claimed her statements were volunteered.

With Jeffries contradicting Donovan—making it abundantly clear that Donovan had solicited incriminating statements from Keller before informing her of her rights—Burns had to reverse himself. Motion granted—Keller’s statements were thrown out.

When the case ping-ponged back to Sacks, he expressed his increasing frustration with the length of time the prosecution had dragged on. “It’s been two years over a few marijuana plants,” the judge said.

Now was the time for the prosecution to play its final card: they were calling Aaron Cervantes to the stand—the gangly nephew who’d been seen with Ortiz at the Brew and Grow in 2009.

It wasn’t much of a card. An anxious computer-science major at Chicago State, Cervantes really, really didn’t want to be there. He’s what attorneys call a reluctant witness, compelled to testify in exchange for not having been charged himself.

Time and time again he bitterly muttered hard-to-hear, one- or two-word responses to questions from Gilliam-Booker as Sacks asked him to speak up. He was as unhelpful to the state’s case as he could be. He even said the confession he signed was bogus. “The officer sat me down and he proceeded to speak and write things down when I would tell him no, no, no,” Cervantes said. “It was not my statement.”

Judge Sacks shook his head in annoyance.

In his closing statement, Nemzin stressed that no evidence linked Keller to the grow house except her self-incriminating statements, which had been thrown out.

As for Ortiz, his lawyer, O’Daniel, couldn’t bother denying that he was growing weed. She could only argue that Ortiz was a pot smoker who’d never reached the point of being able to sell it. “The evidence is insufficient to show that Mr. Ortiz intended to manufacture and deliver,” she argued.

Sacks was skeptical. “A hundred and eighty-six plants—that sounds like enough for a chain-smoker.” He later quipped to the attorneys: “Did you all get contact highs when you examined the evidence?”

“We tried as hard as we could, your honor,” O’Daniel retorted.

Minutes later the judge became serious as he announced the verdicts: Keller, not guilty, Ortiz, guilty.

On June 15, the day Mayor Emanuel announced his support for decriminalizing the possession of marijuana, Adrian Ortiz stepped before Judge Sacks to find out if he would be sentenced to prison. The state’s attorney was still pushing for three years behind bars.

Going into the sentencing, O’Daniel was still in disbelief that the case had even gone to trial, since Ortiz had been willing to make a deal two years earlier in exchange for probation—a common punishment for cannabis growers with no previous record.

O’Daniel says she doesn’t understand why. “When you find out, please tell me.”

The state’s attorney’s office doesn’t believe it has to explain. A spokesman for state’s attorney Anita Alvarez said neither she nor anyone else in the office would comment.

As a matter of fact, in one of many ironies in the case, the prosecutor and the prosecuted now would both like to keep the story out of the news.

“All rise,” said the bailiff, as the judge entered the courtroom.

Ortiz approached the bench, head bowed, shoulders slumped, hands behind his back, his lawyer at his side.

O’Daniel offered a humanizing portrait of her client in the hopes that it would convince the judge to give Ortiz a light sentence. She stressed that he was a mentor and held two other jobs besides his teaching position. In his free time, she said, he volunteers at a cat rescue center.

“You must know I like cats,” said Sacks.

But Gilliam-Booker painted a much different picture, arguing that Ortiz was a big-time player. “It was his choice to mastermind this large-scale operation.”

Sacks looked at Ortiz. “You want to say anything?”

Ortiz nodded. “I’m asking the court to give me the opportunity to get my life back together.”

O’Daniel added that Ortiz has cleaned up since getting arrested. “He was smoking pot prior to this and he’s stopped it.” She said he’d never mentioned marijuana around his students and emphasized that he’s not a public safety threat. “I’m not trying to downplay what happened here—it was serious. But no weapons were involved. His reputation has suffered from this. He earned no money from this. He doesn’t have a criminal history.”

“No one has suggested that Mr. Ortiz is part of a Colombian cartel,” Sacks said. “Mr. Ortiz is kind of like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One side of him is a professor and mentor. The other side, he’s growing marijuana.”

The judge sentenced Ortiz to 36 months probation, fees and costs, and 50 hours community service.

Ortiz nodded and hurried away to confer with O’Daniel and family outside.

As court wrapped up, Sacks was cracking jokes with the public defenders and witnesses. Afterward, he said he couldn’t comment about the Ortiz/Keller case beyond what he already said in court. He stressed that he was just trying to do his job.

“Whatever case comes in here, I deal with it,” he said. “I’m not here to philosophize. Now if Rahm Emanuel wants to let people smoke a joint, that’s up to him.”

Joey Jachowski, Rebecca Cohen, and Jordan Larson helped research this article.

Correction: This story has been amended to correctly describe the rank of a Class 2 felony.