News Local

New book about massive grow-op bust in Barrie gaining attention

Cheryl Browne

By Cheryl Browne, Barrie Examiner

OPP Photo
Hundreds of marijuana plants are seen growing in a fermentation vat at the former Molson plant in Barrie.

OPP Photo Hundreds of marijuana plants are seen growing in a fermentation vat at the former Molson plant in Barrie.

A new book about the biggest marijuana grow-op bust in North American history hit the shelves this week.

And it all happened 10 years ago in Barrie.

Mark Coakley's Hidden Harvest (ECW Press) is a factual account of the estimated $30 million a year marijuana grow-op operated under the noses of police, residents and commuters who drove by the former Molson brewery daily.

Living in Hamilton, Coakley said he spent 10 years as a lawyer before he became a stay-at-home dad and author.

“I'm hoping people in Barrie would have a special place in their hearts for this story,” Coakley said. “As I wrote it, I discovered most people were cheering for the growers and hoped they would get off.

"Only a tiny minority thought badly of them.”

In his book, Coakley writes about how Drago Dolic, Fred Freeman (not his real name), Jeff DaSilva and Robert Bleich met at the Molson property in 2001 to consider the huge warehouse – and the large former beer vats – for their future grow-op.

It took nine months and dozens of tradesmen from Quebec to build the concrete walls around the base that would hide some 21,000 plants per harvest (four a year) from the legitimate business owners in other parts of the building.

Coakley goes into great detail about growing marijuana, including the lighting, water filtration, mites and moulds.

He estimates that at the time, the pot sold for $2,500 per pound. At 900 pounds per month, or 10,800 pounds a year, Coakley figures the Molson growers earned about $30 million annually.

Using photos from Ontario Provincial Police files and quotes from former mayor Rob Hamilton and now-retired Barrie police chief Wayne Frechette, as well as former Barrie Examiner and Toronto-area reporters who covered the story, he meticulously pulls together a play-by-play account of two years of the secret lives of the growers.

Each of the men were arrested — beginning with the Jan. 9, 2004 raid — but most of whom have served their time and have since been released.

However, a major player, Bob DeRosa, older brother of Fercan business and Molson building owner Vincent DeRosa, wasn't caught in the initial round-up. Coakley follows up on his trials and tribulations in the second half of Hidden Harvest.

During the ensuing years, Vincent DeRosa has been through two court proceedings that completely exonerated him of any knowledge of the grow-op his brother helped run.

He sold his Barrie land for $4 million, but his lawyer, Brian Greenspan, said the federal government has deployed extensive delaying tactics, refusing to release those funds to DeRosa, who additionally holds another 50 developments across Ontario.

“Seldom, in my 40 years practising (law), have I experienced more abuse exercised by the Crowns in someone's affairs,” Greenspan said.

Coakley cites a Toronto newspaper report stating that DeRosa hadn't paid the $648,000 municipal taxes on the building in 2003, yet city spokesman Scott LaMantia says that's not the case.

In an e-mail, LaMantia wrote, "The property taxes were paid in full at the time of the ownership change. The City of Barrie has nothing to do with the funds that are being held by other levels of government."

Coakley said he's now writing a book about the legalization of pot.

“There's been two Canadian commissions done and both times they found the government's over-reaction to marijuana has left people cheering for the other side on the war on drugs,” Coakley said.

Ten years after the nation's largest drug bust, the mindset about marijuana has changed, he said.

“Now, the Chief Financial Officer of the Liberal Party, Chuck Rifici, has bought an abandoned chocolate factory (Hershey's) near Smiths Falls, and he's going to turn it into a giant, legal grow-op where he expects to make $100 million a year.”

The Molson land still sits empty.

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