FRESNO, Calif. — The third of nine defendants charged over the summer in connection with a large marijuana cultivation operation in Alpaugh, pleaded guilty plea today to participating in a drug conspiracy, U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced.
According to the plea agreement, Eliazar Castellanos–Gutierrez, 26, of Colima, Mexico, conspired to manufacture, distribute, and possess with intent to distribute marijuana. In pleading guilty, Castellanos acknowledged that he was found growing marijuana on a 20–acre parcel of agricultural land in the small farming community of Alpaugh in Tulare County. Castellanos admitted that he had paid $3,000 to the landowner, Saul Morales, 48, of Alpaugh, to grow 899 marijuana plants for purportedly medical use. Castellanos admitted that he never consulted with a doctor and is not sick. According to his plea agreement, he was "just using his medical marijuana recommendation to make money." Law enforcement officers seized 4,011 marijuana plants and several firearms from the property, which was owned and occupied by Saul Morales and his wife, Juliana Garcia–Torres, 54, who are also charged.
Castellanos is scheduled for sentencing before U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill on February 19, 2012. He is subject to deportation upon completion of any term of imprisonment that is imposed. Castellanos faces a mandatory minimum penalty of five years in prison and a maximum of 40 years in prison, along with a $5 million fine. The actual sentence, however, 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.
Ezidoro Hurtado–Cerillos pleaded guilty on October 1, 2012; he is scheduled to be sentenced on December 17, 2012. The remaining co–defendants are scheduled for a status conference in federal court in Fresno on December 3, 2012. The allegations against them are only accusations and they are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
This case is the product of an investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. It was initiated by the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department. The case is part of Operation Mercury, a six–county law enforcement initiative focusing on marijuana cultivation operations on agricultural land. Assistant United States Attorney Karen Escobar is prosecuting the case.