FRESNO, Calif. — U.S. District Judge Dale A. Drozd sentenced Juan Penaloza-Ramirez (Penaloza), 46, a native and citizen of Michoacán, Mexico, residing in Taft, today to seven years and three months in prison for conspiring to manufacture, distribute and possess with intent to distribute marijuana that was grown at three separate marijuana cultivation sites in the Sequoia National Forest, U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert announced.
In sentencing Penaloza, Judge Drozd ordered the forfeiture of the seized cash, firearms and ammunition seized during the investigation, and he ordered Penaloza to pay $10,198 in restitution to the U.S. Forest Service for the damage to public land and natural resources caused by his cultivation activities.
Penaloza’s sentence follows his guilty plea earlier this year. According to court documents, Penaloza employed growers, deliverymen, and others to cultivate marijuana in Tulare and Kern Counties in the Sequoia National Forest. The grow sites were located at Fay Creek and Brush Creek, tributaries of the Kern River, and the Needles, a series of massive granite rock formations near the North Fork of the Kern River. Every winter, Penaloza traveled to Mexico to recruit people to grow marijuana on public lands in the United States.
At the Fay Creek grow site, law enforcement officers seized 3,151 marijuana plants. Springs were dammed and diverted to irrigate the marijuana plants and large amounts of trash were scattered throughout, including in a flowing stream.
The Brush Creek grow site contained 2,719 marijuana plants. To make room for the marijuana plants, the growers had eradicated new vegetation and trees that sprouted after the 2002 McNally Fire. Law enforcement officers found large piles of trash stuffed between boulders and buried along a stream. The officers also found toxic pesticides and fertilizers spread throughout the 10-acre site.
The Needles grow site contained 2,608 marijuana plants. In addition to the presence of toxic chemicals and waste, officers found that the water source for the marijuana plants was a spring that drains into the Upper Kern River.
Law enforcement officers also seized marijuana cultivation equipment and supplies, over $7,000 in cash, 16 firearms and over 2,000 rounds of ammunition during follow-up searches of the residences of Penaloza and co-defendant Russell Lee Riggs, 69, of Weldon, another supplier to the Fay Creek site. Riggs pleaded guilty last week and is scheduled for sentencing on September 11, 2017.
This case is the product of an investigation by the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Southern Tri-County High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) task force, the California Department of Justice’s Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), and the Kern County Sheriff’s Office. Assistant United States Attorney Karen Escobar is prosecuting the case.