Investigators with the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office, the FBI and other agencies are hunting for more people they believe were responsible for violently forcing four brothers to labor at an illicit marijuana plantation near West Point.
Calaveras Sheriff’s Capt. Jim Macedo said during a news conference Tuesday that District Attorney Barbara Yook is considering charges against other, unnamed people in addition to the two already arrested and charged.
It is not clear whether the case involves a homegrown California crime operation or one with international ties.
Macedo said that some of the victims in the case have mentioned one of the Mexican drug cartels, but Macedo said that connection “has yet to be corroborated.”
The investigation began early the morning of July 27, when four men showed up at a West Point area home to beg for help, saying they were escaping forced labor on a nearby marijuana plantation. The home’s residents called the Sheriff’s Office.
“Three of the males had significant, visible injuries,” Macedo said. The next day, authorities eradicated more than 23,000 marijuana plants with an estimated value of more than $18 million and began hunting for those responsible. They made no arrests that first day. One man fled during the raid on the marijuana farm and authorities found a pistol in a backpack abandoned there.
Court documents reveal that the victims in the case – some of whom said they fled their native state of Michoacan in order to get away from violence there – live in fear of the cartels. They told investigators they believe that a relative of Guadalupe Arrellano, one of two people already arrested and charged in the case, is involved in the Knights Templar cartel.
Some relatives of the men told investigators they also fear police because, in their native Mexico, corrupt police are sometimes in the employ of the cartels. They said that is why they did not report the crime to authorities even after they knew the four men, all brothers, were being forced to work on a marijuana plantation.
Authorities during the news conference displayed images of a shrine to Santa Muerte, Spanish for “Saint Death,” that were photographed during the search of a home in Modesto. A number of news reports have documented the popularity of Santa Muerte with members of Mexican drug cartels.
The Catholic Church does not recognize Santa Muerte. Worshipers, however, revere and display the figure in the same way that recognized saints are displayed in homes and churches.
Two suspects in the case – Arrellano, 43 and Medarda Urbieta, 44 – were arrested on Sept. 14. They face charges of human trafficking, kidnapping, battery, making terrorist threats, possession of marijuana for sale and cultivation of marijuana.
The two appeared in court on Tuesday. Attorney Brian Chavez-Ochoa, representing Arrellano, declined to take any action on behalf of his client because he has not yet received all the prosecution’s evidence in the case. More evidence is still to come because investigators are still working on the case.
Urbieta, represented by Attorney David Singer, also took no further action. Both women spoke through a Spanish language interpreter, indicating they understood what was happening. Neither entered a plea. That might happen as soon as Oct. 7 when the two are scheduled to return to court for further arraignment.
Before being kidnapped and forced to labor on the plantation off of Bald Mountain Road near West Point, the four men were farm laborers in Modesto. Two of them said they met Arrellano at a doughnut shop used as a job market by employers and day laborers.
The two men said Arrellano told them she had a job for them. But when they arrived in a forested area in Calaveras County, she and her henchmen instead beat the two and forced them to work on the plantation.
Macedo Tuesday revealed new details about how the other two men were ensnared. He said Arrellano returned to Modesto and told family members that the two brothers were working on her marijuana farm, but that she would be willing to take several of them to see that the brothers were safe. Macedo said that when the other two brothers arrived, however, they were also beaten and forced to work.
“The victims were beaten for complaining,” Macedo said.
Among the photographs shown during the news conference were images of cash seized during searches and of the crude log structures in which the victims were forced to store their food. According to a court document, the men told investigators that bears stole the food and that Arrellano sometimes did not replace the lost food, instead criticizing them for not preventing the bears from taking it.
One victim told an investigator that Arrellano wore a Santa Muerte necklace.
The investigator wrote in a report filed in support of Arrellano’s arrest warrant, “I know that drug traffickers or growers wear Santa Muerte paraphernalia to protect them from harm based on my training and experience as a former narcotics investigator.”
Macedo said that the four men and their relatives are now “safe and secure and they are working with victim services.”
Macedo said the marijuana plantation involved in the case is not among the more than 700 for which applicants in June submitted registration applications under a new county medical cannabis zoning code. He called the plantation an example of the “greed and money that’s involved in marijuana.”