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Cop accused of heading drug operation Buffalo officer fired after discovery of huge marijuana crop

Another Buffalo police officer, the third in as many weeks, was arrested Thursday, this time on charges of overseeing a large-scale drug business in South Buffalo.

Jorge I. Melendez, a four-year veteran of the department, is accused of overseeing a marijuana grow operation that included two warehouses, two homes and more than 1,000 plants.

Melendez, 41, was arrested at Buffalo Police Headquarters and immediately fired by city officials.

"It's disgusting," Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said of the allegations. "We're going to do all we can to take out the garbage."

Police also charged Jason R. Elardo, who is not a police officer, with helping to grow and sell the marijuana.

Prosecutors said the allegations against Melendez are numerous, but the most shocking one is that he often checked on his grow operation while on duty and in uniform.

They said Melendez would drive his police car to the warehouses in South Buffalo from his daily assignment in North Buffalo.

"That to me was the most troubling aspect of this, that he left his post of duty," U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said at a news conference.

Investigators described the marijuana business as one of the larger grow operations they have come across in recent years. The said the plants -- there were more than 1,000 at three different locations -- were high quality and close to being harvested.

They also claim Melendez had been in business for at least a year.

"This was a very sophisticated hydroponic marijuana grow operation," said Dale Kasprzyk, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Buffalo.

The investigation started with a tip from the state police about a grow operation at 2157 South Park Ave., Kasprzyk said. The tip led them to Melendez, one of the owners of the warehouse, he said. The other warehouse is at 1372 Clinton St.

He said investigators seized the 1,000 plants, as well as weapons and more than $50,000 in cash, as part of their raids Thursday morning.

Melendez will appear in federal court today to face charges of manufacturing and distributing marijuana, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa M. Marangola, the prosecutor handling the case.

If Melendez is convicted of owning 1,000 plants, he could face up to life in prison, prosecutors noted. Under federal sentencing guidelines, he also could get a more lenient sentence.

Mayor Byron W. Brown expressed outrage at the news of another police officer being arrested. He also defended the city's decision to fire Melendez right after his arrest Thursday morning.

"We want this to send a very strong message that city employees involved in illegal activities and abusing the taxpayers will not be tolerated," Brown said.

This is the third Buffalo cop arrested in recent weeks. Two others face charges that they defrauded the state's sick leave system.

Unlike those arrests, this one seemed to trigger an emotional reaction in Derenda, who was visibly angry while talking about a fellow officer charged with drug dealing.

The commissioner went so far as to mention that Melendez's father served on the force for 30 years before dying in a boating accident in Ontario seven years ago.

"I bet he's rolling over in his grave," Derenda said.

He then repeated his characterization of Melendez as "garbage" and suggested he was glad to take away his badge and gun.

"Quite honestly," Derenda said, "he never was (an officer)."

The yearlong investigation into Melendez started with the state police and DEA but also involved the FBI and Buffalo police.

Derenda said the investigation into Melendez's drug dealing is continuing, and more arrests may be coming. He does not expect any of them to involve Buffalo cops.

He did suggest, however, that other police officers may face criminal charges for other wrongdoing, a reference to the two other officers arrested this month.

"We may be back for more press conferences soon," he told reporters.

When asked about the public's perception of his department in the wake of those arrests, Derenda said 99.9 percent of his officers are honest and hardworking. He also said the public should be glad that the bad cops are finally being rooted out and punished.

He also suggested that at least one of those officers is gone for good.

"He's made admissions," Derenda said of Melendez. "We have more evidence against him than you can ever imagine. He's done."

News Staff Reporter Aaron Besecker contributed to this report.