News and Press Releases

United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner
Eastern District of California

Kern, Fresno, Kings, and Stanislaus Counties Marijuana Prosecution Update

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Monday, April 29, 2013
 

FRESNO, Calif. — The federal prosecution of large-scale marijuana cultivation operations in the Central Valley has not slowed down, according to U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner. An indictment filed in one case last Thursday signals the beginning of an early and robust marijuana cultivation season this year. Four other federal cases from Kern, Fresno, Kings, and Stanislaus Counties ended today with guilty pleas and prison sentences.

Domeland Wilderness Area Grow (Case No. 1:13-cr-172-AWI)
According to an indictment brought on April , Sergio Reyna-Huerta, 36, and Noe Alvarez-Ramirez, 27, both of Michoacán, Mexico, were charged with conspiring to cultivate, distribute and possess with intent to distribute marijuana, manufacturing marijuana, possessing marijuana with intent to distribute, damaging public lands and natural resources, and avoiding examination by immigration officers. They were found at a marijuana cultivation operation containing approximately 7,302 marijuana plants in Gibboney Canyon in the Domeland Wilderness Area in the Sequoia National Forest in Kern County. U.S. Forest Service agents and Kern County Sheriff’s Office detectives found the grow site at the beginning of this year. Native vegetation, including oak trees, was cut to make room for the marijuana plants and the ground was terraced. Trash and fertilizer was strewn about the area, including the waterway of Gibboney Creek.

Reyna-Huerta and Alvarez-Ramirez are scheduled to be arraigned today at 1:30 p.m. in Fresno. If convicted, they face a mandatory minimum term of 10 years to life in prison and a $10 million fine. They are also subject to deportation, if convicted. Any sentence, however, would 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 charges are only allegations; the defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

This case was investigated by the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, California Department of Fish and Game, and Kern County Sheriff’s Office.

Bakersfield Warehouse Grow (Case No. 1:10-cr-131 AWI)
In another case out of Kern County, Joseph Nolan, 57, a Malibu business man from Oak Park, Calif., pleaded guilty today to conspiring to cultivate, distribute, and possess with intent to distribute 1,161 marijuana plants in a warehouse in a light industrial area of Bakersfield. He also agreed to the forfeiture of thousands of dollars of marijuana cultivation equipment. According to the plea agreement, Nolan set up and oversaw a sophisticated indoor marijuana cultivation operation that was purportedly conducted under California law. However, court records indicate that the grow was a for-profit enterprise and was not in compliance with California law. The marijuana plants were valued at approximately over $4 million. In addition to the plants, drug agents seized approximately 54.8 pounds of processed marijuana valued at about $219,200. Federal law does not recognize any medical use of marijuana. Nolan is scheduled for sentencing on July 8, 2013.

The case is the product of an investigation by the DEA, Bakersfield Police Department, and Kern County Sheriff’s Office.

Reedley Agricultural Grow (Case No. 1:11-cr-00373 AWI)
Chanh Vorasane, 47, of Fresno, Calif., pleaded guilty today to using drug-involved premises. According to court documents, Vorasane grew approximately 1,163 marijuana plants and processed more than 1,723 pounds of marijuana on a vegetable farm in Reedley. Law enforcement agents found Vorasane with his cousin, Ketkeo Vorasane, 47, also of Fresno, during the execution of a federal search warrant at the property. According to court records, Chanh Vorasane failed to obey law enforcement commands to halt and ran into the residence, where agents found Ketkeo Vorasane and two firearms. Chanh Vorasane is scheduled for sentencing on July 8, 2013. Ketkeo Vorasane previously pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison for possessing a loaded shotgun and a Glock .357 handgun in furtherance of drug trafficking crimes.

The case was investigated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.

Kettleman City Agricultural Grow (Case No. 1:12-cr-0282 AWI)
Rafael Garcia-Deniz, 45, of Jalisco, Mexico, was sentenced today to five years in prison, to be followed by four years of supervised release for conspiring to cultivate, distribute and possess with intent to distribute 394 marijuana plants grown on farmland in Kettleman City. Earlier this year, Garcia-Deniz pleaded guilty. He acknowledged that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had previously sent notice to the corporate landowner of the Kettleman City property that marijuana was growing there. Several months later, law enforcement officers found marijuana still growing at the property and obtained a federal warrant to search the property. During the execution of the warrant, officers seized the marijuana plants from an area which had posted medical marijuana recommendations, along with a handgun and box of ammunition. In his plea agreement, Garcia-Deniz admitted that he did not have a medical marijuana recommendation and that he would be paid for his work. He further admitted that the firearm belonged to him.

This case was the product of an investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and Kings County Sheriff’s Office.

Newman Agricultural Grow (Case No. 1:12CR342 AWI)
Phanetavanh Southammavong, 44, of Modesto, pleaded guilty today to conspiring to cultivate, distribute and possess with intent to distribute marijuana plants, cultivating the plants, and possessing them with the intent to distribute. In pleading guilty, Southammavong acknowledged that he was involved in the cultivation of 907 marijuana plants in a rural area along the San Joaquin River in the vicinity of Newman. Southammavong was found at the grow site during the execution of a search warrant by agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Stanislaus Drug Enforcement Agency. Although Southammavong initially claimed at the time of his arrest that the plants were being grown for medical reasons, he later acknowledged that he was growing the marijuana for profit and expected to sell the marijuana for $800 per pound. In addition to the marijuana, a firearm traced to an owner in Idaho was found. He is scheduled for sentencing on July 8, 2013, and faces five to 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, which take into account a number of variables.

The case was investigated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Stanislaus Drug Enforcement Agency, a multi-agency drug task force in Modesto.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen A. Escobar is prosecuting all of the foregoing criminal cases.

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