A man entered a "not guilty" plea Monday to overseeing one of the largest marijuana-grow operations in the Norwalk area.
Former Monroeville resident Thomas G. Sterling, 32, of 29 Milan Ave., goes to trial Aug. 12 on one count each of trafficking in marijuana, possession of marijuana and tampering with evidence. The third-degree felonies are punishable by nine months to three years in prison.
Sterling also is charged with possession of criminal tools. If convicted of the fifth-degree felony, he faces six to 12 months behind bars.
The Norwalk Police Department and Huron County Sheriff's Office conducted the investigation of Sterling, who is accused of cultivating marijuana at the old Berardi's Catering building on Cleveland Road. The investigation started in mid-March when police Detective Sgt. Seth Fry received information about the suspect from a tipster, which sheriff's Detective Sgt. Josh Querin reportedly corroborated.
Multiple Norwalk officers and sheriff's deputies used a search warrant March 12 at Berardi's. Firefighters gained entry for authorities because there was a dead bolt on the door.
"You could smell it from the outside when we got here," police Detective Sgt. Fulton said, referring to the marijuana. "There were 13 small plants. ... Most of them were mature -- ready to be harvested."
Authorities estimated the largest plants were taller than 3 feet. Officers confiscated 78 marijuana plants and various lighting equipment from Berardi's.
"He had in fact started harvesting some of them," Fulton said soon after the raid. "This was probably the biggest one (grows) I've seen in Norwalk. ... This is only the second one I've seen on this scale."
(NOTE: To see more photos of the drug bust, click HERE.)
Also on March 12, Querin has said he and other deputies used a warrant at Sterling's Monroeville home, where they seized three guns, suspected grow equipment, a small amount of cash and various pieces of alleged drug paraphernalia.
"Prior to our arrival, he had flushed marijuana down the toilet," Querin said, referring to Sterling. "He received some intelligence we were coming to his house and decided to discard the marijuana."
Sterling, who earlier posted a $25,000 bond, said in court Monday he doesn't have any prior felony convictions and currently isn't on probation. He is subject to random drug screens.