News and Press Releases

United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner
Eastern District of California

Operation Mercury Cases

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Monday, January 6, 2014
 

www.usdoj.gov/usao/cae

usacae.edcapress@usdoj.gov

 

FRESNO, Calif. — Today, one marijuana cultivator entered a guilty plea and one was sentenced for their involvement in separate cases resulting from Operation Mercury, a six-county eradication and enforcement effort that focused on large-scale marijuana cultivation operations on agricultural land in the Central Valley, U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced.

4,011 Marijuana Plants Seized in Alpaugh (1:12-cr-234 LJO)

Bonifacio Cano Gutierrez, 20, of Colima, Mexico, was sentenced today to two years and six months in prison following his guilty plea last October to a marijuana cultivation conspiracy. He is subject to deportation to Mexico upon completion of his prison sentence. Cano was the seventh of eight defendants to plead guilty to conspiring to cultivate, distribute and possess with intent to distribute marijuana on 20-acres of agricultural land in Alpaugh owned by Saul Antonio Morales, 49. Cano was responsible for the cultivation of 899 marijuana plants in one of 14 plywood fenced plots on Morales’ property, which contained a total of 4,011 marijuana plants.

Cano had an expired medical marijuana recommendation from a doctor he had never seen. (The doctor has been indicted in a separate federal case with the unlawful distribution of oxycodone and hydrocodone, as well as various financial crimes.) Court documents indicate that Cano would get a cut of the profits from the interstate sale of marijuana from Morales’ son, Gerardo Morales, 20, who was sentenced in November to three years and one month in prison for this drug conspiracy.

In October, a federal jury convicted Saul Morales, the property owner, of four narcotics offenses relating to the marijuana cultivation operation. He faces a mandatory minimum prison term of 10 years in prison, a maximum prison term of life, and a fine of up to $4 million. His sentencing is currently set for January 27, 2014. The actual sentence, however, will be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables.

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), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and explosives, and Tulare County Sheriff’s Office.

2,932 Marijuana Plants Seized in Fresno (1:12-cr- 341 LJO)

Phonepaseuth Phaphilom, 27, of Fresno, pleaded guilty today to conspiring to cultivate, distribute and possess with intent to distribute marijuana grown on an agricultural parcel on Marks Avenue in rural southwest Fresno. During the execution of a federal search warrant there, narcotics agents found Phaphilom with four other men from out of the area, 2,932 marijuana plants, and a firearm. Phaphilom, who was detained pretrial based in part on a criminal history that included weapons and narcotics violations, said he was going to sell the marijuana “up North” for $800 a pound. Based on a conservative one pound per plant yield, the cultivation operation was valued at over $2.3 million. In addition, court records indicate that some of the marijuana was destined for Las Vegas.

Phaphilom is scheduled for sentencing on March 17, 2014. He faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years and a fine of up to $1 million. The actual sentence, however, will be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables.

This case was the product of an investigation by the DEA and Fresno County Sheriff’s Office. Operation Mercury has so far resulted in the seizure of nearly half a million marijuana plants and the prosecution of 84 defendants in federal court in Fresno.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen A. Escobar is handling the above marijuana prosecutions.

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