Two Sentenced, Three Plead Guilty In Marijuana Cultivation Prosecutions
FRESNO, Calif. — Two more marijuana cultivators were sentenced and three entered guilty pleas today for their involvement in separate cases resulting from Operation Mercury, a six-county effort that focused on large-scale marijuana cultivation on agricultural land in the Central Valley, U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced.
6,158 Marijuana Plants/Firearms Seized from National Forest Grow (1:12-cr-300 LJO)
Osmin Norberto Mejia, aka Osmin Mejia Masariegos, 31, of La Libertad, Petén, Guatemala, was sentenced to seven years and three months in prison following his guilty plea last year to possessing a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking and cultivating marijuana at a grow site in the Slick Rock area of the Sequoia National Forest in Kern County. He was also ordered to pay $3,393 to the U.S. Forest Service to cover the costs of cleaning up the grow site. Mejia is subject to deportation upon completion of his prison term.
According to court documents, Mejia was in possession of a shotgun when he encountered law enforcement officers executing a search warrant at the grow site and used the weapon to protect himself and the marijuana plants that he was growing there. Drug agents seized 6,158 marijuana plants from the cultivation site, along with the shotgun Mejia possessed and a rifle found in a tent at a campsite at the grow. The cultivation operation caused significant damage to the land and natural resources. Native vegetation and many oak trees were cut down to make room for the marijuana plants and the ground was terraced. Large amounts of trash and fertilizer bags were scattered throughout the grow site.
The case was investigated by the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and the Kern County Sheriff’s Office.
1,313 Marijuana Plants/Handgun Seized from Terra Bella Grow (1:12CR318 LJO)
Jose Guadalupe Zavala Ramos, 33, of Michoacàn, Mexico, was sentenced to two years and three months in prison for conspiring to cultivate, distribute and possess with intent to distribute marijuana plants grown on a 40-acre agricultural parcel in Terra Bella that was rented by Baltazar Rodriguez, 44, also of Michoacàn. According to court documents, Zavala, along with Rodriguez and four others also charged in this case, was found at the cultivation site during the execution of a federal search warrant. The agents seized 1,313 marijuana plants and a loaded .38 caliber handgun from Rodriguez’s residence on the property. The agents obtained the search warrant following surveillance of a drug courier to the Terra Bella site who had delivered supplies to multiple grow sites on National Forest lands in Tulare, Kern, and Ventura Counties.
Zavala was sentenced following his guilty plea last October. In pleading guilty, Zavala acknowledged that he was to be paid $100 a day to assist in tending the marijuana plants. Three of Zavala’s co-defendants have also entered guilty pleas.
Rodriguez and the remaining co-defendant have requested a jury trial, which is set for later this year. The charges against them are only allegations; the defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
This case was also investigated by the U.S. Forest Service with assistance from, HSI, and the Tulare and Ventura County Sheriff’s Offices.
2,932 Marijuana Plants Seized in Fresno Ag Grow (Case No. 1:12C2341 LJO)
Rassamee Phothidokmai, 53; Paul Nokham, aka Boun Theung Hokham, 49; Thavone Onsyphanla, 51; all of Las Vegas, 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 the men, along with 2,932 marijuana plants, and a firearm. Court records indicate that some of the marijuana was destined for Las Vegas.
Sentencing for Nokham and Onsyphanla is scheduled for March 31, 2014 and for Phothidokmai on April 7, 2014. They face a maximum prison sentence of 20 years and a fine of up to $1 million. 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 Drug Enforcement Administration and the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.
Each of the above cases stem from Operation Mercury, an intensive marijuana eradication and enforcement effort initiated in 2012 by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in six counties to address the increasing problem of the cultivation of marijuana on agricultural land. Operation Mercury 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.