APRIL 15 (SACRAMENTO, Calif.) —United States District Judge William B. Shubb sentenced Uriel Ochoa-Espindola, 44, of Fresno, today to 17 and a half years in prison for his part in a marijuana trafficking conspiracy, Drug Enforcement Administration Acting Special Agent in Charge Bruce C. Balzano and United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced.
According to court documents, Espindola was the leader of a massive marijuana manufacturing operation and an interstate drug distribution ring. He and his partners grew tens-of-thousands of marijuana plants in three different counties in California and shipped their product across the country with the aid of commercial truckers. Espindola’s operation was based near Delhi, Calif., but he controlled marijuana grows in El Dorado County, Tehama County, and Placer County. Espindola personally organized and directed hundreds of pounds of marijuana shipments to South Dakota, Colorado, Massachusetts, Washington, and North Carolina. Espindola was in charge of 10 other men. He made key decisions, assigned jobs, and organized deals.
In sentencing Espindola, Judge Shubb said that Espindola ran a “very serious operation,” and indicated that Espindola’s role as a leader had a significant impact on his sentencing decision.
According to court documents, investigators seized three handguns and nearly 11,000 marijuana plants at the El Dorado County grow site. They seized nearly 17,500 marijuana plants at a grow site in Placer County, and nearly 2,000 marijuana plants at the grow site in Tehama County.
The organization was large enough that it needed “middle-managers,” such as Valentine Ramirez-Cardinez, who was sentenced to 15 years and eight months in prison for managing the grow sites. These middle managers helped protect and isolate Espindola from possible law enforcement contact. After 300 pounds of his marijuana was seized by investigators in Chicago, Espindola separated himself from the undercover agents by putting Ramirez-Cardinez in charge.
According to court documents, Espindola was “one of the largest marijuana traffickers in Northern California.” He, his lieutenants, and his workers used firearms to further that operation. In addition to the weapons found in the El Dorado County grow site and a shotgun found at Espindola’s home, Ramirez-Cardinez, told one of the undercover officers that he brought a .22-caliber rifle to the Placer County grow site. Investigators ultimately found five other firearms at Ramirez-Cardinez’ house when he was arrested. Earlier, Ramirez-Cardinez gave one of the undercover officers an AK-47 rifle. The officer was supposed to pay for the weapon later.
During an evidentiary hearing related to sentencing, a special agent with the California Department of Justice testified that investigators also found an additional three handguns, three AK-47 rifles, two M-16/M-4 rifles, four shotguns, and one rifle at an address on Rowland Lane in Corning, Calif. This was a residence at which one of Espindola’s lieutenants loaded a truck in connection with one of the cross-country shipments. Contrary to defense claims, Judge Shubb noted, “This was his operation,” and held Espindola accountable for the weapons his partners and workers used in furtherance of the operation.
This case was the product of an investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office, Placer County Sheriff’s Office, the California Department of Justice Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, and the Mountain and Valley Marijuana Investigation Team. Assistant United States Attorney Michael M. Beckwith prosecuted the case.