A man from Michoacán, Mexico, suspected of damaging Sequoia National Park property while cultivating marijuana at three separate locations within the park pleaded guilty Monday.
In addition to the plea, Juan Penaloza-Ramirez, who also went by the alias Juan Penaloza-Herrera and Juan Penaloza, agreed to pay $10,198 to the U.S. Forest Service for damaging the National Park, said U.S. Attorney Phillip Talbert. He faced charges of conspiring to manufacture, distribute and possess with intent to distribute marijuana grow. The 46-year-old Taft man could serve a mandatory minimum statutory penalty of five years in prison and a maximum statutory penalty of 40 years in prison with a $5 million fine.
According to court documents, Penaloza-Ramirez traveled to Mexico every winter to recruit people to work for him, Talbert said. The man employed growers, deliverymen and others to cultivate the plant at Fay Creek, Brush Creek and The Needles, located inside the National Park.
Law enforcement seized 3,151 marijuana plants from Fay Creek, 2,719 from Brush Creek and 2,608 from The Needles. Springs were blocked and redirected to water marijuana plants at the Fay Creek and Needles locations. The water used at the Needles location came from a spring that drains into the upper Kern River. In order to make room for marijuana plants at Brush Creek, employees removed new vegetation and trees that had sprouted after the 2002 McNally Fire. Trash was found flowing in the streams near Fay Creek and also in a stream that supports trout at Brush Creek. At both The Needles and Brush Creek site, toxic pesticides from Mexico were discovered.
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Penaloza-Ramirez is scheduled for sentencing June 19. On May 8, co-defendant Russell Lee Riggs, 68, is scheduled for a status conference. The charges against Riggs are only allegations, Talbert said, and he is presumed innocent until proven guilty.