FRESNO — Humberto Ceballos-Rangel (Ceballos), 37, of Mexico, pleaded guilty today in connection with his involvement in a large marijuana cultivation operation found by law enforcement last summer in the Sierra National Forest in Madera County, United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced.
Ceballos pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to manufacture, to distribute, and to possess with the intent to distribute 50 or more marijuana plants.
According to court documents, Ceballos and his co-conspirators caused significant damage to public land and natural resources. Ceballos was found at a campsite within a marijuana cultivation site with 5,904 marijuana plants. A firearm and ammunition were recovered from a vehicle associated with the cultivation operation.
The cultivation operation caused significant harm to the environmental landscape, according to Wagner. Native vegetation was cut to accommodate the marijuana plants, foot trails, and cooking and sleeping areas. Water was also diverted from a nearby creek to irrigate the marijuana plants. Agents found and removed from the site insecticide, propane tanks, and a large quantity of trash and hose line. Ceballos has agreed to make restitution to the U.S. Forest Service for the costs of cleaning up the site.
The charges against Ceballos’ co-defendants — Francisco Javier Gomez-Rodriguez, 38; Alejandro Ramirez-Rojo, aka Alejandro Ramires, 31 — also citizens of Mexico; and Anthony Isaac Santibanez, 20, of Woodlake, Calif., remain pending. These charges are only allegations. The defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Ceballos is scheduled for sentencing before U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill on Apr. 18. He faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $1 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.
This case is the product of an investigation by the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), California Department of Justice’s Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Madera County Narcotic Enforcement Team (MADNET). Assistant United States Attorney Karen A. Escobar is prosecuting the case.
(Stock photos of marijuana cultivation sites in the foothills of Madera County – from Madera Co. Sheriff’s Office)