Federal prosecutors are wrapping up a weak case against 11 men charged with cultivating thousands of marijuana plants in Ohio. The state’s former top cop claimed it’s an example of cartel-sponsored drug production, but defense attorneys point out that many of the defendants were day laborers who were tricked into harvesting the illegal crop.
When the grow bust was ballyhooed in a self-promotional news release, Attorney General Richard Cordray claimed the seizures and arrests were more evidence of what he claimed was “cartel-sponsored mega-marijuana farms taking root in Ohio.”
But court documents provide no proof of that. Defense attorneys said the defendants were cash-strapped day laborers trying to earn money for their families, with no idea of what they were being hired to do.
For instance, Leonel Mondragon-Garcia got a call on his cellphone offering “a day’s work” with no details, according to his attorney, Margaret Quinn. He was driven to a rural wooded area north of the Muskingum River and learned he was expected to help harvest a field of marijuana.
Just about the time he figured out he was trapped of the day, police raided the grow camp, arresting Mondragon-Garcia and 10 others, according to Quinn.
The 29-year-old spent several months in jail before pleading guilty to conspiracy to “knowingly and intentionally manufacture” more than 1,000 marijuana plants. He was given 12 months and one day in prison, after which he’ll be deported to Mexico.
“It was kind of a misfortune answering the wrong phone call,” Quinn said. “That’s a long time to do for an hour’s worth of work.”
|Here’s the cops stealing, I mean “seizing,” some of the plants last September in Ohio.
The government probably knew a lot more about what was going on at the operation than did the undocumented immigrants who were hired to harvest the weed, according to Michael Monta, attorney for Ismael Bucio-Hernandez.
“They were poor farmers from Mexico,” Monta said. “They came over the border I would say with the idea of a better life to send money back home because there was no money back home. And they got caught up in this.”
Bucio-Hernandez, 34, also pleaded guilty to “manufacturing” more than 1,000 marijuana plants and was given 13 months in prison.
Despite the hyperbolic accusations of a “major cartel” being in charge of the grow, documents released by prosecutors don’t name anyone outside Ohio involved in the operation.
One of the 11 men, Jose Vilchiz-Garcia, 28 (these cats sure seem to dig hyphenated last names), was described as being the recruiter responsible for hiring people to harvest and cultivate plants. He has pleaded guilty to the same charge as the others and was scheduled for sentencing on Friday.
Only one of the 11 was in the country legal, 42-year-old Mexican national Hugo Ayala of Columbus. He also pleaded guilty and was given 14 months in prison.
The September 2010 arrests came after a hunter tipped the cops that thousands of marijuana plants were growing in Muskingum and Logan counties.
Papers filed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration claim “numerous men” were found at the camp in Muskingum County separating marijuana buds and plants when the farm was raided on September 20.
Agents were led to the farm as they did surveillance on Ayala near a farm in Logan County in west central Ohio, according to official documented.
When the cops moved in as the pot was being harvested, they lost the chance to learn more about who was in charge of the operation, according to lawyer Peter Certo, whose client, Manual Castrejon-Sanchez, 37, got a 14-month sentence.
“If they had the ability to wait to find out where this stuff was going as opposed to seizing it all in the field they might have found out a lot more about who was organizing this thing,” Certo said.