Tulare County man convicted of pot cultivation
FRESNO — The third of nine defendants charged over the summer in connection with a large marijuana cultivation operation in Alpaugh pleaded guilty Friday to participating in a drug conspiracy, the Department of Justice said.
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.
Castellanos reportedly admitted that he had paid $3,000 to the landowner, Saul Morales, 48, of Alpaugh, to grow 899 marijuana plants for purportedly medical use. He also 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.”
Authorities seized 4,011 marijuana plants and several firearms from the property, which was owned and occupied by Morales and his wife, Juliana Garcia-Torres, 54, who are also charged.
Castellanos is scheduled for sentencing on Feb. 19.
He is subject to deportation upon completion of any term 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.
Ezidoro Hurtado-Cerillos pleaded guilty on Oct. 1; he is scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 17. The remaining codefendants are scheduled for a status conference in federal court in Fresno on Dec. 3.
This case is the product of an investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations 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.