FRESNO, Calif. — Nine central California men have been charged in an eight-count federal indictment handed down Thursday for their role in a large-scale illegal pot growing operation in the Sequoia National Forest. This information was uncovered during a multi-agency probe involving U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
According to court documents, the marijuana cultivation site was located in the Sentinel Peak area of the Sequoia National Forest in Tulare County. During the investigation, law enforcement agents seized some 16,000 marijuana plants, more than 850 pounds of processed marijuana, and three firearms, including an assault rifle. Native vegetation was cut to make room for the marijuana plants. Trash and fertilizer containers were scattered throughout the site and a nearby stream.
"The criminal groups involved in these illegal marijuana growing operations have repeatedly shown they have no qualms about using violence against those who get in their way, including unwitting members of the public who are using our state's wilderness for recreation," said Michael Toms, the resident agent in charge for ICE HSI in Bakersfield. "Public lands are there for everyone to enjoy, and we're going to do whatever it takes in concert with our law enforcement partners to prevent harm to visitors and the environment."
Among those indicted in the case are: Victor Alfonso Madrigal-Cardenas, 24; Jerman Madrigal, 19; Carlos Mendez-Sosa, 30; Juan Luis Quintero-Pimentel, 20; Gauvencio Madrigal-Chavez, 60; all of Delano, Calif. The remaining defendants, Ivan Carrillo, 29; Antonio Morales, 19; Javier Aranda-Barajas, 32; and Aurelio Anaya-Sanchez, 36; are residents of Lamont, Calif. The men are charged with conspiring to cultivate, distribute, and possess marijuana with intent to distribute it, cultivating and possessing marijuana with intent to distribute it, and damaging public lands and natural resources. Mendez-Sosa, Quintero-Pimentel, Aranda-Barajas, and Madrigal-Chavez are also charged with avoidance of examination by immigration officers and are subject to deportation if convicted of the charges. All nine defendants were detained pending trial. Their arraignment is set for Oct. 21.
In addition to ICE HSI, the investigation involved the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Southern Tri-County High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), the California Department of Justice Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), the California Department of Fish and Game, and the Tulare County Sheriff's Office. Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Escobar is prosecuting the case.
The drug charges all carry a mandatory minimum penalty of 10 years and a maximum term of life in prison and a $10 million fine. If convicted of damaging public land and natural resources, the defendants face a sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The maximum sentence for the immigration offense is six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.