2 men plead guilty in Kern County Ranch marijuana grows

Third suspect pleaded not guilty

FRESNO, Calif. -  

Operation Mercury, a multicounty marijuana initiative focusing on agricultural marijuana grows, has resulted in the guilty plea today of Christopher Gallegos, 19, of Temecula, and the sentencing today of Ramon Manjarrez Del Vaal, 37, of Sinaloa, Mexico.

Kern County Ranch Case

In pleading guilty, Gallegos acknowledged that he, his brother 22-year-old Salvador Gallegos Jr., of Bakersfield, and two co-defendants, 32-year-old Rufino Orozco Martinez, 32, an undocumented alien from Mexico, and Jorge Torres, 28, of Bakersfield, conspired to cultivate 920 marijuana plants on private ranch land in Kern County.

Law enforcement officers also seized three pounds of processed marijuana and an assault weapon from the grow site.

Gallegos is scheduled for sentencing before U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill on March 8, 2013.

His brother and Orozco previously entered guilty pleas and are scheduled for sentencing in April. Torres has entered a not guilty plea. The charges against him are only accusations and he is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

The Gallegos brothers and Orozco face five to 40 years in prison and a $5 million fine. 

Devil’s Den Case 

U. S. District Judge Lawrence O’Neill sentenced Manjarrez to two years and six months in prison for conspiring to cultivate, distribute and possess with intent to distribute 1,019 marijuana plants grown on a five acre parcel of land in Devil’s Den near Kettleman City.

According to court records, Manjarrez came to California from Mexico to work for co-defendant, Jonathan Anthony Meza, 20, of Los Angeles, who was sentenced in January to five years in prison. Manjarrez was hired to water and care for the marijuana plants at the Devil’s Den grow for monetary compensation. Upon completion of his prison term, Manjarrez is subject to deportation to Mexico.

Both cases are the product of Operation Mercury, an intensive marijuana eradication and enforcement effort initiated earlier this year by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in six counties to address the increasing problem of the cultivation of marijuana on agricultural land. To date, Operation Mercury has resulted in the seizure of nearly half a million marijuana plants and the prosecution of 83 defendants in federal court in Fresno. The Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), U.S. Forest Service, and Kern County Sheriff’s Office investigated the case against Gallegos. The DEA, HSI and the Kings County Sheriff’s Office investigated the case against Manjarrez.

Assistant United States Attorney Karen Escobar is prosecuting the cases.

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