FRESNO, CA — Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Special Agent in Charge Anthony D. Williams and United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced the entry of guilty pleas and one sentencing in three separate marijuana-cultivation cases stemming from Operation Trident, a multi-agency marijuana enforcement effort in Madera, Fresno, and Tulare Counties in 2009 and 2010. Operation Trident resulted in the eradication of approximately 663,898 marijuana plants primarily from public lands in the Sierra Nevada foothills and mountains in the Eastern District of California. These cases bring the total number of federal convictions in connection with Operation Trident to 63.
The first guilty plea was entered by Saul Pacheco Panuco, 31, a citizen of Mexico. In pleading guilty, Pacheco Panuco admitted that he had conspired to cultivate, distribute, and possess with intent to distribute 12,586 marijuana plants. According to court records, Pacheco Panuco was found in April 2010, in a marijuana grow site on unimproved private land in Ahwahnee, spraying fertilizer on marijuana plants. Pacheco Panuco said he was getting paid $8 an hour to tend the plants and his boss would get $100 to $500 per pound for the marijuana. Pacheco Panuco is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii on October 17, 2011. He faces a mandatory minimum penalty of 10 years and a maximum term of life in prison as well as a fine of up to $4 million. The actual sentence, however, will be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory sentencing factors and the federal sentencing guidelines, which take into account a number of variables.
The second guilty plea was entered by Julio Ramirez Perez, 33, a citizen of Mexico. In pleading guilty, Ramirez Perez admitted that he possessed a firearm in connection with a conspiracy to cultivate, distribute, and possess with intent to distribute 3,792 marijuana plants. According to court records, Ramirez Perez was found in a mobile home in a vineyard in Madera County during the execution of a search warrant. In the mobile home, agents found a 12-gauge shotgun, a sawed-off .22-caliber rifle without a serial number, a 9mm handgun, and numerous rounds of live ammunition of various calibers. The marijuana plants were planted throughout 86 rows of the vineyard. Ramirez Perez is scheduled to be sentenced on October 11, 2011 before Senior U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger. He faces a mandatory prison term of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. The actual sentence, however, will be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory sentencing factors and the federal sentencing guidelines, which take into account a number of variables.
In the third case, Senior U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger sentenced Rafael Perez-Peña, 43, a citizen of Mexico, to five years in prison, to be followed by five years of supervised release. On May 18, 2011, Perez-Peña pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm in connection with a conspiracy to cultivate, distribute, and possess with intent to distribute 1,654 marijuana plants. According to court documents, Perez-Peña was found at the grow site on public land in Eastern Fresno County in possession of a fully loaded shotgun. He admitted that he was responsible for tending the marijuana for $100 a day. Judge Wanger also ordered Perez-Peña to pay $11,214 in restitution to the U.S. Forest Service for environmental damage caused by the marijuana cultivation operation.
The cases against Pacheco Panuco and Ramirez Perez are the product of investigations conducted under the umbrella of Operation Trident by the DEA, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Office of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and Madera County Narcotic Enforcement Team. The case against Perez-Peña is the product of another Operation Trident investigation conducted by the DEA, ICE-HSI, U.S. Forest Service, and Fresno County Sheriff’s Office. Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen A. Escobar is the prosecutor for all three cases.