A Fresno man who controlled marijuana growing operations in El Dorado, Placer and Tehama counties has been sentenced to more than 17 years in prison.
Uriel Ochoa-Espindola, 44, today received a 17.5-year sentence in Sacramento from U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb for his part in a marijuana trafficking conspiracy, according to a federal Department of Justice news release.
Ochoa-Espindola was the leader of a massive marijuana manufacturing operation and an interstate drug distribution ring, according to court documents. His operation was based near Delhi, but he and his partners grew tens of thousands of marijuana plants in three different counties and shipped their product across the country with the aid of commercial truckers.
Authorities said Ochoa-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, and made key decisions, assigned jobs and organized deals.
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 a grow site in Placer County, and nearly 2,000 marijuana plants at the grow site in Tehama County.
Authorities said the operation 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. Three middle managers helped protect and isolate Ochoa-Espindola from possible law enforcement contact. After 300 pounds of his marijuana was seized by investigators in Chicago, authorities said, Ochoa-Espindola separated himself from undercover agents by putting Ramirez-Cardinez in charge.
Ochoa-Espindola was described in court documents as one of the largest marijuana traffickers in Northern California, and firearms were used to further the operation. In addition to weapons found in the El Dorado County grow site and a shotgun found at Ochoa-Espindola's home, Ramirez-Cardinez told an undercover officer that he brought a .22-caliber rifle to the Placer County grow site. Investigators found five other firearms at Ramirez-Cardinez's house when he was arrested.
Authorities said Ramirez-Cardinez earlier gave an undercover officer an AK-47, which the officer was supposed to pay for later.
A special agent with the California Department of Justice testified during an evidentiary hearing related to sentencing that investigators 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, where one of Ochoa-Espindola's lieutenants loaded a truck in connection with the cross-country shipments.
The case resulted from an investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the California Department of Justice Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, the Mountain and Valley Marijuana Investigation Team, and the El Dorado and Placer County sheriff's offices.