Two Indictments for Marijuana Cultivation on Agricultural Land
July 26 (Fresno, Calif.) — Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent in Charge Anthony D. Williams and U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced that a grand jury in Fresno brought two indictments for marijuana cultivation operations in Kings and Tulare Counties today.
“These indictments stem from an initiative targeting large-scale rural marijuana growers in six counties in the Central Valley of California,” said U.S. Attorney Wagner.
The first indictment charges Jonathan Anthony Meza, 20, of Los Angeles, and Ramon Manjarrez-Del Vaal, 36, of Sinaloa, Mexico, with conspiring to grow, distribute, and possess with intent to distribute marijuana and growing and possessing marijuana with intent to distribute it. Meza is also charged with maintaining drug-related premises.
According to court documents, Meza and Manjarrez-Del Vaal lived on the grow site in Devil’s Den south of Kettleman City in Kings County. On July 12, agents searched the property and found approximately 1,019 marijuana plants, a loaded rifle, and fertilizer. Meza told the agents that he had purchased the property and recruited Manjarrez-Del Vaal from Tijuana to assist him. Meza possessed a purported California medical marijuana recommendation authorizing the cultivation of 99 marijuana plants.
Agents also found a cease and desist letter from the landowner of another property in Kettleman City, where law enforcement officers had previously discovered another marijuana cultivation operation. The cease and desist letter had been sent after the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Fresno sent notice to the landowner of the Kettleman City property that marijuana was growing there. The U.S. Attorney’s letter further indicated the cultivation of marijuana is illegal under federal law and described potential forfeiture proceedings and criminal penalties associated with the cultivation of marijuana. Thereafter, the landowner of the Kettleman City property assured the U.S. Attorney’s Office that it would fully comply with federal law and sent its cease and desist letter to one of the tenants of the property. During this time, Meza purchased the Devil’s Den property, where the cease and desist letter was found. Before purchasing the Devil’s Den property, Meza’s address of record was the address for the Kettleman City property.
The second indictment charges Saul Antonio Morales, 47, his wife, Juliana Garcia-Torres, 53, their son, Gerardo Alonso Morales, 19, all of Alpaugh; Antonio Iniguez Becerra, 48, of Morgan Hill, and Ernestina Villareal-Guerrero, 34, of Fresno; Eliazar Castellanos-Gutierrez, 26, Bonifacio Cano-Gutierrez, 18, Ezidoro Hurtado-Cerillos, 37, all of Mexico; with conspiring to grow, distribute, and possess with intent to distribute marijuana, and growing and possessing marijuana with intent to distribute it. In addition to these charges, Saul Morales and his wife are also charged with maintaining drug-related premises. Hurtado-Cerillos is charged with being an undocumented alien in possession of a firearm. Cano-Gutierrez, Castellanos-Gutierrez and Hurtado-Cerillos are also charged with immigration offenses.
According to court documents, the Morales family owned and lived on a 20-acre parcel of land in Alpaugh in Tulare County. When law enforcement officers searched their residence, they found over 4,000 marijuana plants, a firearm, processed marijuana, packaging materials, scissors, digital scale, and Sureno gang clothing and indicia. On the property, officers found three trailers where the other defendants were residing and seized two more firearms.
If convicted of the drug charges, the defendants face a mandatory minimum penalty of 10 years in prison and a maximum of life in prison and a $10 million fine. The maximum penalty for maintaining drug-involved premises is 20 years in prison and $500,000 fine. The firearm offense carries a maximum prison term of 10 years and a fine of up to $250,000. The actual sentences, if convicted, 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.
A federal magistrate judge has detained all of the defendants, except Gerardo Morales, after finding they posed a flight risk or danger to the community. The Kings County defendants are scheduled for arraignment on July 27, 2012, and the Tulare County defendants are scheduled for arraignment on August 3, 2012. The charges are only allegations and the defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
These cases are the product of investigations by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and the Tulare and Kings Counties Sheriff’s Departments. Assistant United States Attorney Karen Escobar is prosecuting the cases.