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Press Release

Three Plead Guilty to Marijuana Cultivation Operation at Prehistoric Native American Site

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Eastern District of California

FRESNO, Calif. — Juan Carlos Lopez, 32, of Lake Elsinore; Rafael Torres-Armenta (Torres), 30; and Javier Garcia-Castaneda (Garcia), 38, both of Michoacán, Mexico, pleaded guilty today to conspiring to manufacture, distribute and possess with intent to distribute marijuana in connection with a large-scale cultivation operation on public land in Tulare County in the Sequoia National Forest., United States Attorney Phillip A. Talbert announced. In pleading guilty, the men also agreed to make restitution to the U.S. Forest Service for the damage to public land and natural resources caused by their cultivation activities.

According to court documents, the men conspired with each other and co-defendant Carlos Piedra‑Murillo (Piedra), 30, of Mexico, to cultivate marijuana at a prehistoric Tübatulabal Native American archaeological site in the Domeland Wilderness area. The Domeland Wilderness is a federally designated wilderness area that is located about 55 miles northeast of Bakersfield. Law enforcement officers eradicated over 8,000 marijuana plants from this and another site and seized 17 pounds of processed marijuana, a .22-caliber rifle, a pellet rifle, and numerous rounds of .22‑caliber ammunition. Piedra pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge last month.

The marijuana cultivation operation caused extensive environmental damage to about 10 acres of public land. The area was located within the burned area of the 2000 Manter Fire. Some of the new vegetation and trees that sprouted after the fire had been cut and trimmed to make room for the marijuana plants. Water was diverted from a tributary stream of Trout Creek. Fertilizer and pesticides, including illegal zinc phosphide from Mexico were found at the site. Large piles of trash were also found near the campsite. The northernmost area of the operation caused extensive damage to a large prehistoric Tübatulabal archaeological site. Holes were dug in the middle of the archaeological site and artifacts were found scattered on the surface among the marijuana plants.

This case is the product of an investigation by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Assistant United States Attorney Karen Escobar is prosecuting the case.

Lopez, Torres, and Garcia are scheduled for sentencing on June 26, 2017, by U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill. Piedra is scheduled for sentencing on June 5, 2017. Lopez faces a mandatory prison sentence of five years in prison and a maximum term of 40 years in prison and a $5 million fine. The other men face a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine. 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. Piedra, Torres, and Garcia are subject to deportation to Mexico following the completion of any prison sentence imposed.

Updated April 3, 2017

Drug Trafficking
Press Release Number: 1:16-cr-145-LJO