Juan Penaloza-Ramirez, aka Juan Penaloza-Herrera, aka Juan Penaloza (Penaloza), 46, of Michoacán, Mexico, residing in Taft, California, pleaded guilty today to conspiring to manufacture, distribute and possess with intent to distribute marijuana grown at three separate marijuana cultivation sites in the Sequoia National Forest, U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert announced. In pleading guilty, Penaloza agreed to pay $10,198 to the U.S. Forest Service for the damage to public land and natural resources caused by the cultivation activities.
According to court documents, Penaloza employed growers, deliverymen, and others to cultivate marijuana at Fay Creek, Brush Creek, and The Needles in the Sequoia National Forest in Tulare and Kern Counties. Every winter, Penaloza traveled to Mexico to recruit people to grow marijuana on public lands in the United States.
At the Fay Creek cultivation site, springs were dammed and diverted to irrigate the marijuana plants and large amounts of trash were scattered throughout the site, including in a flowing stream. Law enforcement officers seized 3,151 marijuana plants from this location. In pleading guilty, Penaloza agreed to the forfeiture of firearms and ammunition seized during a search of his home.
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 that supports trout. The officers also found toxic pesticides from Mexico 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 had been derived from a spring that drains into the Upper Kern River.
This case is the product of an investigation by the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, 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.
Penaloza is scheduled for sentencing before U.S. District Judge Dale A. Drozd on June 19, 2017. Penaloza faces a mandatory minimum statutory penalty of five years in prison and a maximum statutory penalty of 40 years in prison and a $5 million fine. The actual sentence, however, will be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables.
Co-defendant Russell Lee Riggs, 68, of Weldon, California is scheduled for a status conference on May 8, 2017. The charges against Riggs are only allegations; he is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.