Seized growing equipment to help local students in classroom

Becky Campbell • Oct 17, 2012 at 9:57 PM

Kids involved in the Carver Recreation Center’s garden project and a Sullivan County school program will get their hands on some pricey indoor growing equipment once used to produce an illegal drug that landed the former owner in a federal prison.

The equipment, large zip-up growing tents with grow lights and a ventilation system inside, will be re-purposed as an educational tool to teach high school students and kids in after school activities how to grow vegetables indoors.

Authorities sized approximately 28 of the tents from a joint investigation between the Johnson City Police Department and Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office. Instead of destroying the equipment or selling it at auction, the U.S. Attorney’s Office approved donating it to entities in the locations where the marijuana was found.

On Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Bill Killian announced the donated growing equipment and related material will be divided between the Johnson City Parks and Recreation Department and Sullivan East High School’s agriculture program.

The arrests came in November after authorities were alerted by a citizen about two possible locations where the person suspected someone was growing marijuana.

After searching the locations in Bluff City, investigators discovered information that led them to two locations in Johnson City. Officers seized 65 plants, 10 pounds of processed marijuana and $15,000 cash from the locations and an additional $24,000 in a bank account.

Two men were arrested and the case was prosecuted in federal court with successful convictions. David Steven Alles, 54, of Johnson City, was sentenced to serve five years in prison as a result of the investigation. Steven Edward Wilkie, 22, also of Johnson City, assisted Alles in the operation and was sentenced to 15 months in prison.

“The lesson, I would say, is where is the person who was growing the pot,” Killian said when asked about the irony of donating marijuana-growing equipment for use by students.

Killian said it’s the first donation of it’s kind in Tennessee to his knowledge.

Michael Smith, agriculture teacher at Sullivan East and the Future Farmers of America adviser, said he is excited with the donation.

“We grow tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and green peppers in our greenhouse, all hydroponically. This just gives us another opportunity. This much more than we could ever have or be able to do,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll get our produce grown faster than we have in the past. The kids will be able to have experiments with this with the light intensity,” water usage and temperatures, he said.

The Sullivan East students said they grow vegetables and plants at school to sell as a fundraiser for the program and FFA.

“We’ve been trying to start new fundraisers so this will help us,” said student Autumn Rose.

She said her hydroponics class uses an indoor growing system, “but nothing like this.”

Classmate Matthew Lampkins agreed.

“This is a little more elaborate,” he said.

Wenny Elrod, director of the HEAL grant with the Parks and Recreation Department, said she got the idea of trying to get the equipment after hearing a local prosecutor present a program on drug investigations and the property seized during an operation.

The growing tents will add to and enhance a garden project already in place at Carver, she said.

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