Jury Convicts Juarez-Sanchez Following Trial Involving Marijuana Grow Operation in Iron County
SALT LAKE CITY – A jury convicted a Compton, Calif., man of manufacturing a controlled substance by cultivation in connection with a 2012 marijuana grow on U.S. Forest Service land in Iron County following a three-day trial late last week in U.S. District Court.
Roman Juarez-Sanchez, age 46, faces up to life in federal prison for the conviction with a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart, who presided over the trial, set sentencing for April 1, 2013, in St. George.
In recent years, drug trafficking organizations have been cultivating marijuana in the mountains of Southern Utah. Federal, local, and state agencies are coordinating efforts to reduce and eliminate this illegal and dangerous practice.
“This is a victory in the fight against marijuana grows on Utah’s public lands. DEA will continue to stand steadfast with our federal, state and local partners to keep dangerous drug trafficking organizations from setting up grow operations on public lands in Utah,” Frank Smith, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of DEA in Salt Lake City, said today.
Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower believes law enforcement officers in Utah have found a successful strategy for dealing with marijuana grows. “We have adopted a policy of being proactive rather than reactive in dealing with drug traffickers attempting to grow marijuana on Utah’s public lands. We’ve been aggressive in our efforts to identify and investigate those cultivating the marijuana as well as those who support the operations, like the defendant convicted in this case. Ultimately, successful cases start with boots on the ground and solid investigative work,” Sheriff Gower said.
Acting on tips from a citizen, law enforcement officers located the Iron County grow in July of last year and began conducting surveillance of the area to identify those involved in the grow operation. Officers executed a traffic stop later in July and arrested three individuals in the area of the grow. Jaurez-Sanchez was in the car along with two other individuals, Gabriela Lopez, age 25, of Compton, and Marcelo Balderas-Contreras, age 28, of Mira Loma, Calif. Officers found several large bags in the trunk of the car that contained more than 80 pounds of harvested marijuana. Lopez admitted that she and Juarez left California earlier in the day to deliver food to workers at the grow site and bring back harvested marijuana. Juarez-Sanchez told officers he was to be paid $3,000 for the trip. He said he knew where to meet the grow workers because he had been communicating with the on-site grow supervisor.
Law enforcement officers raided the marijuana grow a few days later but made no additional arrests. Officers found 4,211 marijuana plants at the grow site.
Evidence at Juarez-Sanchez’ trial last week showed that he played a significant role in the marijuana cultivation operation. Specifically, he organized the transportation of workers and supplies into the grow area and was trusted to haul large quantities of marijuana out of the cultivation site.
U.S. Attorney for Utah David B. Barlow said Juarez-Sanchez’ conviction should send an important message to those involved in marijuana cultivation operations. “This case illustrates that a person need not be physically present in the grow area to be considered a key player in a marijuana-grow operation. There was no evidence this defendant was ever in the grow site itself or that he ever planted, tended, or cut the plants himself. However, we had strong evidence that his efforts helped facilitate the crime. We will continue to aggressively prosecute those who are involved in marijuana grows on Utah’s public lands, including those whose actions aid and abet the operation,” Barlow said.
Prosecutors said that in addition to the 4,211 marijuana plants found at the cultivation area, forest trees were cut down, scarce water was diverted to the grow, and those involved in the cultivation left a large amount of trash in the national forest.
The two other defendants in the case, Lopez and Balderas-Contreras, reached plea agreements with federal prosecutors. Both pleaded guilty to one count of manufacture of a controlled substance by cultivation. Lopez admitted she aided and assisted in delivering food to those working in the Iron County marijuana cultivation site and helped transport harvested plants from the grow area. Balderas-Contreras admitted he assisted in cultivating marijuana plants and in transporting harvested marijuana away from the cultivation site. Sentencing for both is scheduled for March 4, 2013, in St. George.
“The organizations that grow and traffic marijuana on public lands pose a significant threat to public safety. Additionally, they do significant damage to our natural resources and public lands. The special agents and law enforcement officers of the U.S. Forest Service stand firm in their commitment to work with local, state, and federal partners to investigate, prosecute, and dismantle the organizations that choose to use our public lands to further their criminal enterprises,” Mike McKinney, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Forest Service in Utah, said today.
Local, state, and federal officers and prosecutors believe their unified efforts in the identification, investigation, and prosecution of individuals involved in marijuana grow operations in Utah is reducing the number of plants and grows in Utah. During the 2010 Utah outdoor marijuana grow season, enforcement efforts resulted in the seizure of 106,845 plants from 17 grows. In 2011, 78,363 plants were seized in nine grows. The 2012 grow season ended with a total of 13,177 plants seized from four grows.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Paul Kohler and Matt Bell with DEA Special Agent Cliff Lark as the lead case agent.