News and Press Releases

United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner
Eastern District of California

Guilty Pleas in Marijuana Cultivation Cases

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Monday, December 9, 2013
 

www.usdoj.gov/usao/cae

usacae.edcapress@usdoj.gov

 

FRESNO, Calif. — Two men pleaded guilty today to their involvement in two separate cases of cultivating marijuana on public lands, United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced.

Sequoia National Forest Marijuana Cultivation Operation (1:12CR221LJO-SKO)
In the first case, Julio Cesar Villanueva Cornejo (Villanueva), 33, of Michoacán, Mexico, pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking crimes, possessing an illegal rodenticide, Fosfuro de Zinc, and possessing an illegal insecticide and QúFuran, in violation of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).

According to court documents, Villanueva delivered chemicals and supplies to a marijuana cultivation operation in the Lilly Canyon area of the Sequoia National Forest. The cultivation operation caused extensive environmental damage. Native oak trees and other vegetation were killed or cut down to make room for the 9,746 marijuana plants planted there. The soil was tilled, and fertilizers, pesticides, and rodenticides were spread throughout the site. Cans of rat poison and insecticide were found at both the cultivation site and the residence where Villanueva lived in Bakersfield. In addition to the illegal pesticides, two firearms, marijuana seeds, and other items associated with the cultivation operation were found at Villanueva’s residence. Villanueva has agreed to reimburse the U.S. Forest Service for the costs incurred in the clean-up of the grow site.

Fosfuro de Zinc contains zinc phosphide, an inorganic rodenticide that is highly toxic to non-target mammals and fish. Zinc phosphide is highly toxic to humans. A single swallow can be fatal to a small child. Zinc phosphide can be expected to persist in soil for approximately two weeks. When it breaks down in soil, zinc phosphide can create and release phosphine gas.

QúFuran contains carbofuran, a highly toxic insecticide. In granular form, a single grain will kill a bird; for humans, one quarter of a teaspoon is a sufficient dose to be fatal. It is also a powerful endocrine disrupter. Effective December 31, 2009, EPA cancelled all food tolerances for carbofuran.

This case is the product of an investigation by the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI); U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division (EPA-CID), and the Kern County Sheriff’s Department.

Terra Bella Marijuana Cultivation Operation (1:12-cr-0318 LJO-SKO)
Juan Carlos Perez-Gonzales (Perez), 44, of Michoacán, Mexico, also pleaded guilty in a separate case to manufacturing and aiding and abetting the manufacture of 1,313 marijuana plants, ranging from six to 14 feet on 39.6 acres of farm land in Terra Bella.

In pleading guilty, Perez acknowledged that he ran from one of the marijuana plots when law enforcement officers executed a federal search warrant on the land. He indicated that he was paid $100 a day to assist in the cultivation of the plants and ran because he was scared. According to court documents, the officers found evidence linking the Terra Bella cultivation operation to other marijuana cultivation operations on public lands in the Sequoia National and Los Padres National Forests following the physical surveillance of a marijuana delivery or “lunch” man to the Terra Bella operation.

This case is the product of an investigation by the U.S. Forest Service, ICE HSI, Tulare County, Kern County, San Luis Obispo, and Ventura County Sheriff’s Offices, and Escondido Police Department.

Both Villanueva and Perez are scheduled for sentencing on February 24, 2014, before U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill. The firearm charge carries a mandatory minimum prison term of five years in prison and a maximum life term, along with a maximum fine of $250,000. The FIFRA violation carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a maximum fine of $25,000. Perez faces a mandatory minimum prison term of 10 years and a maximum life term and a $10 million fine. Their actual sentences 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. Both are subject to deportation to Mexico after they serve any prison time imposed.

Assistant United States Attorney Karen Escobar is prosecuting both cases.

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