Pot trafficker sentenced to more than 17 years | TheUnion.com

Pot trafficker sentenced to more than 17 years

The Union staff

A Fresno man was sentenced Monday in federal court to 17 and a half years in prison for his part in a marijuana trafficking conspiracy that included a substantial grow operation in Alta.

Uriel Ochoa-Espindola, 44, was the leader of a massive marijuana manufacturing operation and an interstate drug distribution ring, according to court documents.

He and his partners grew tens of thousands of marijuana plants in three different counties in California and shipped their product across the country with the aid of commercial truckers.

Espindola's operation was based near Delhi, Calif., but he controlled marijuana grows in El Dorado, Tehama, and Placer counties.

Espindola personally organized and directed hundreds of pounds of marijuana shipments to South Dakota, Colorado, Massachusetts, Washington and North Carolina.

He was in charge of 10 other men, making key decisions, assigning jobs and organizing deals.

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In sentencing Espindola, United States District Judge William B. Shubb said that Espindola ran a "very serious operation," and indicated that Espindola's role as a leader had a significant impact on his sentencing decision.

According to court documents, investigators seized three handguns and nearly 11,000 marijuana plants at the El Dorado County grow site.

They seized nearly 17,500 marijuana plants at the grow site in Alta, and nearly 2,000 marijuana plants at the grow site in Tehama County.

The organization was large enough that it needed "middle managers," such as Valentine Ramirez-Cardinez, who was sentenced to 15 years and eight months in prison for managing the grow sites.

These middle managers helped protect and isolate Espindola from possible law enforcement contact, according to court documents.

After 300 pounds of his marijuana was seized by investigators in Chicago, Espindola separated himself from the undercover agents by putting Ramirez-Cardinez in charge.

According to the documents, Espindola was "one of the largest marijuana traffickers in Northern California."

He, his lieutenants, and his workers used firearms to further that operation.

In addition to the weapons found in the El Dorado County grow site and a shotgun found at Espindola's home, Ramirez-Cardinez told one of the undercover officers that he brought a .22-caliber rifle to the Alta grow site.

Investigators ultimately found five other firearms at Ramirez-Cardinez's house when he was arrested.

Earlier, Ramirez-Cardinez gave one of the undercover officers an AK-47 rifle. The officer was supposed to pay for the weapon later.

During an evidentiary hearing related to sentencing, a special agent with the California Department of Justice testified that investigators also found an additional three handguns, three AK-47 rifles, two M-16/M-4 rifles, four shotguns, and one rifle at an address on Rowland Lane in Corning.

This case was the product of an investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the El Dorado County Sheriff's Office, Placer County Sheriff's Office, the California Department of Justice Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, and the Mountain and Valley Marijuana Investigation Team. Assistant United States Attorney Michael M. Beckwith prosecuted the case.

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