APRIL 15 (FRESNO, Calif.) —Five cases against five men involved in separate marijuana cultivation operations in Fresno, Tulare and Kern Counties were resolved today in federal court, Drug Enforcement Administration Acting Special Agent in Charge Bruce C. Balzano and U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced.
Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces Case (No. 1:11CR93 LJO)
U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill sentenced Diocelina Bustos Abarca, 40, of Bakersfield, to five years and nine months in prison for various marijuana cultivation and environmental crimes. He ordered her to pay $25,941 in restitution to the U.S. Forest Service for the damage resulting from the marijuana cultivation operations.
Abarca came to the attention of law enforcement during an investigation of Miguel Gomez-Gomez, 27, of Dinuba, who was implicated in a massive marijuana cultivation operation on public lands in Fresno and Madera Counties. Gomez-Gomez and five of his associates were later indicted and convicted in federal court in Fresno, receiving sentences of up to 11 years in prison. Upon completion of her prison term, Abarca will be subject to deportation to Mexico.
Abarca pleaded guilty at the beginning of this year, admitting involvement in a long-term conspiracy to cultivate, distribute and possess with intent to distribute marijuana. She acknowledged her involvement in Gomez-Gomez’s marijuana cultivation operation, which produced at least 49,206 marijuana plants, as well as another operation in Tulare County, which produced at least 8,847 marijuana plants. Both operations utilized public lands in the Sequoia National Forest and resulted in significant damage to the land and natural resources.
This case was the product of an investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), under the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) program. The OCDETF program is the centerpiece of the United States Attorney General’s drug strategy to reduce the availability of drugs by disrupting and dismantling major drug trafficking organizations and money laundering organizations. The U.S. Forest Service, Southern Tri-County High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, Kern County Sheriff’s Office, and Bakersfield Police Department also assisted in the investigation. Six other people were indicted and convicted in federal court as a result of this OCDETF investigation for various drug and immigration violations.
Bakersfield Warehouse Grow (No. 1:10CR379 AWI)
In another case out of Kern County, Mark McGrath, 51, of Florida, was sentenced to two years and two months in prison, to be followed by five years of supervised release, for conspiring to cultivate, distribute, and possess with intent to distribute 1,161 marijuana plants found in a warehouse in a light industrial area of Bakersfield. He was also ordered to register as drug offender and to forfeit thousands of dollars of cultivation equipment.
According to court documents, McGrath had been recruited from Florida to help setup a for-profit marijuana cultivation operation. The marijuana plants were valued at more than $4 million. In addition to the plants, drug agents seized approximately 54.8 pounds of processed marijuana valued at about $219,200.
This case was the product of an investigation conducted by the DEA, Bakersfield Police Department, and Kern County Sheriff’s Office.
Kern County Ranch Grow (No. 1:12CR299 LJO)
Salvador Gallegos Jr., 22, of Bakersfield, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for conspiring to cultivate, distribute, and possess with intent to distribute 920 marijuana plants grown without permission of the landowner on private ranch land in a rural area of Kern County. At the grow site, drug agents also seized a couple pounds of processed marijuana and a loaded assault rifle containing 24 rounds of ammunition. According to his guilty plea earlier this year, Gallegos was recruited to assist with work at the grow and was brought to the ranch the day before by unidentified men.
This case was the product of an investigation conducted by the DEA, HSI, U.S. Forest Service, and Kern County Sheriff’s Office under the umbrella of Operation Mercury, a six-county enforcement and eradication operation initiated last year in the Central Valley to counter the proliferation of large-scale marijuana cultivation operations on agricultural land. To date, Operation Mercury has resulted in the indictment of 83 federal defendants and seizure of 482,479 marijuana plants, 4,714 pounds of processed marijuana, 82 weapons, and $113,783 in cash.
Alpaugh Agricultural Grow (No. 1:12CR234 LJO)
In another Operation Mercury case, Antonio Becerra Sanchez, aka Antonio Iniguez Becerra, 49, of Morgan Hill, pleaded guilty to conspiring to cultivate, distribute, and possess with intent to distribute marijuana. According to court records, Becerra was found growing marijuana on a 20-acre parcel of agricultural land in the small farming community of Alpaugh in Tulare County. Law enforcement officers seized more than 4,000 marijuana plants from property owned and occupied by Saul Morales, 47, his wife, Juliana Garcia Torres, 53, and son Gerardo Alfonso Morales, 20, who are also charged but have entered pleas of not guilty to various marijuana trafficking crimes. The charges as to Morales, his wife and son are only allegations and the defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Becerra is scheduled for sentencing on July 8, 2013. He faces a mandatory minimum penalty of five years in prison and a maximum of 40 years in prison and a $5 million fine. 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. Upon completion of his prison sentence, Becerra is subject to deportation to Mexico.
This case is the product of an investigation by the DEA, HSI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), and Tulare County Sheriff’s Office.
Fresno County Agricultural Grow (No. 1:11CR357 AWI)
Shavane Bouasangouane, 44, of Fresno, pleaded guilty today to maintaining a marijuana cultivation operation on agricultural land on Armstrong Avenue in Fresno where he resided.
According to court documents, Bouasangouane was involved in the cultivation and processing of more than 800 pounds of marijuana that belonged to him and his brother, Reney Bouasangouane, 48, who is also charged in the case and has entered a plea of not guilty. Reney Bouasangouane is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
According to Shavane Bouasangouane’s plea agreement, the marijuana was purportedly for their own medical use. However, no rolling papers, smoking paraphernalia, or other items used to ingest marijuana were found in the residence. The property is owned by Somluck and Damrong Pattanumotana, a Fresno physician. Their son, Goon Pattanumotana, an economics professor at Willow International in Fresno, owns another property in Sanger, where law enforcement agents have found multiple large marijuana cultivation operations in the past. The Sanger and Armstrong properties are the subject of pending civil forfeiture actions initiated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Fresno and being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kevin Khasigian and Alyson Berg.
Bouasangouane is scheduled for sentencing on July 1, 2013 and faces a maximum prison term of 20 years and a fine of up to $500,000. 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.
This case is the product of an investigation by the DEA and Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen A. Escobar is prosecuting all of the criminal cases.