Case Update: Central Valley Marijuana Traffickers
FRESNO, Calif. — Marijuana cultivators from Inyo, Fresno, Kern and Stanislaus Counties entered guilty pleas today in three cases and sentenced in two for their involvement in separate large-scale marijuana cultivation operations, according to U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner.
Mexican Nationals Plead Guilty to Forest Marijuana Operation (1:13CR340 LJO)
Jose Aguilar Santoyo (“Aguilar”), 27, of Michoacàn, Mexico, and Jose Salvador Garcia Rodriguez (“Garcia”), 23, of Guanajuato, Mexico both entered guilty pleas to conspiring to manufacture, distribute and possess with intent to distribute marijuana grown on public land. According to court documents, U.S. Forest Service agents seized 3,405 marijuana plants, 350 pounds of processed marijuana, digital scales, highly toxic and illegal rodenticides, including uFuran or Carbofuran, and 2,200 pounds of trash from a marijuana cultivation operation in the Hogback Creek area of the Inyo National Forest. Agents found Garcia at the grow site. Agents found Aguilar at a stash house associated with the grow site in Romoland in Riverside County. Marijuana shake and residue, shipping labels associated with the shipment of marijuana to Chicago, and a firearm were also found at the stash house. In pleading guilty, Aguilar and Garcia both agreed to pay $6,572.14 to the U.S. Forest Service for Hazmat removal and dumping fees associated with eradication of the grow site.
Aguilar and Garcia are scheduled for sentencing on June 16, 2014. Aguilar faces a mandatory minimum prison term of five years and a maximum term of forty years, along with a fine of $5 million. Garcia faces a maximum prison term of twenty years and a fine of $1 million. Both are also subject to deportation to Mexico, upon completion of any prison term imposed. Their actual sentences 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 investigated by the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Homeland Security Investigations of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Inyo County Sheriff’s Office, and Riverside County Sheriff’s Office. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also assisted in the investigation.
Fresno Man Pleads Guilty in River Marijuana Operation (1:12CR342 AWI)
Sam Kounhavong, 51, of Fresno, Calif., also entered a guilty plea to conspiring to manufacture, distribute and possess with intent to distribute marijuana grown beside the San Joaquin River in the vicinity of Newman in Stanislaus County. In pleading guilty, Kouhnavong acknowledged that he and four other men cultivated 907 marijuana plants under the guise of compliance with California medical marijuana law. Although federal law does not recognize a medical purpose for marijuana, Kounhavong admitted that the marijuana was grown for profit without any medical purpose. During the execution of a search warrant at the grow site, agents also found a firearm and saw that water from the San Joaquin River had been diverted to irrigate the marijuana plants.
Kounhavong faces a maximum prison term of 20 years and a fine of up to $1 million. His actual sentence 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. He is scheduled for sentencing on June 2, 2014.
The case was investigated by federal agents from the DEA and Stanislaus Drug Enforcement Agency, a multi-agency drug task force in Modesto.
Fresno Man Sentenced for Ag Grow (1:12CR2341 LJO)
Phonepaseuth Phaphilom, 27, of Fresno, was sentenced to 46 months in prison followed by 36 months supervised release for 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. The men claimed the plants were being grown for medical reasons. While federal law does not recognize the medical use of marijuana, several of the men acknowledged that the operation was for profit, in violation of California law. 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. The State of Nevada does not recognize the medical use of marijuana.
The case against Phaphilom was investigated by the DEA and Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.
Assistant United States Attorney Karen A. Escobar prosecuted the above cases.