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July 5, 2016Fresno, CA, United StatesNarcotics

Defendants charged in large-scale Sierra National Forest marijuana grow appear in court

FRESNO, Calif. — One defendant was sentenced and a second pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court to conspiring to cultivate marijuana in the Sierra National Forest in Madera County, following a multiagency probe that included U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Francisco Javier Gomez-Rodriguez, 38, of Pihuamo, Jalisco, Mexico, was sentenced Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill to three years and five months in prison and ordered to pay $8,750 in restitution to the U.S. Forest Service. Judge O’Neill also ordered the forfeiture of two firearms and ammunition seized in the case.

Meanwhile, a second defendant, Alejandro Ramirez-Rojo, 31, of Mexico, pleaded guilty to conspiring to grow marijuana with the intent to distribute. His sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 26. Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen A. Escobar is prosecuting the case.

According to court documents, between March 1, 2015, and Aug. 4, 2015, co-defendant Humberto Ceballos-Rangel, 37, of Mexico, was found at a campsite in the Saginaw Creek area of the Sierra National Forest at a marijuana cultivation site where agents discovered nearly 6,000 marijuana plants and a loaded firearm. Gomez-Rodriguez and two other co-defendants, Ramirez‑Rojo and Anthony Isaac Santibanez, 20, of Woodlake, California, were encountered a short time later approaching the grow site in a vehicle used for delivering supplies to the cultivation area. A .22-caliber rifle was found in the vehicle, along with multiple rounds of ammunition.

The marijuana grow caused significant environmental damage. Native vegetation was cut to accommodate the marijuana plants, foot trails, and cooking and sleeping areas. Water was diverted from a nearby creek for irrigation. A large quantity of trash was also found in pits and throughout the site.

“The American public treasures its national forests and the federal government goes to great lengths to act as stewards of their protection.” said Ryan L. Spradlin, special agent in charge of HSI San Francisco. “Our forests are special and are holders of thousands of years of history. Their intentional destruction for the purpose of producing illegal drugs is inexcusable and shows a complete disregard for the special land.”

Ceballos-Rangel pleaded guilty and was sentenced in April to three years in prison. Santibanez also pleaded guilty and is scheduled for sentencing Aug. 15. The maximum sentence for conspiracy to manufacture marijuana and to possess with the intent to distribute is 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

In addition to HSI, multiple other federal and state agencies are also involved in this ongoing probe, including the U.S. Forest Service, the California Department of Justice’s Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Madera County Narcotic Enforcement Team (MADNET).

Updated: 07/07/2016