Human trafficking charges dropped in marijuana plantation case in West Point

(Left to right) Medarda Estudillo, Guadalupe Arrellano

Prosecutors have dropped human trafficking and kidnapping charges against two women who were originally described by authorities as ringleaders at a West Point-area marijuana plantation based, in part, on slave labor.

Guadalupe Arrellano, 43, and Medarda Estudillo, 44, now face much-less-serious charges of battery causing great bodily injury, cultivating marijuana and possession of marijuana for sale. Bail, originally set at $800,000 each, was reduced to $32,500 each. Estudillo, with the help of her child’s father, the owner of a masonry company in Modesto, was able to post bail and has since been deported to Mexico, her attorney said.

The case of the escaped plantation workers and the resulting raid on properties off of Bald Mountain Road near West Point made headlines and grabbed the attention of neighbors who heard the sound of an explosive device law enforcement officers used during the raid.

Four brothers, some of whom said they fled their native state of Michoacan in order to escape violence there, reported being beaten and forced at gunpoint to labor on the plantation. Authorities got wind of the situation when the four men – reportedly fearing they would be executed once the harvest was done – escaped and ran to a neighbor’s house to plea for help on July 27. The next day, law enforcement officers found 23,245 marijuana plants on private and Bureau of Land Management lands.

According to investigator reports filed in support of arrest warrants, one of the four men suffered such severe facial fractures from the beatings that he had to be transported to a trauma center outside the county. Two of the men reported they were initially lured with the promise of paid work and the others reported they were kidnapped from where they lived in Modesto to work on the farm. They described Arrellano and Estudillo as the leaders of the operation and said they were always armed.

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.

“The victims were beaten for complaining,” Calaveras County Sheriff Capt. Jim Macedo said during a news conference in September.

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.

In late October, however, the District Attorney’s Office dropped the more serious charges for both women. Also in October, the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office said it had obtained arrest warrants for two other suspects in the case: Roberto Estudillo Urbieta, 30, and Armando Suarez Jr., 22. Both men are wanted on suspicion of possessing and cultivating marijuana and Urbieta is also being sought for allegedly threatening to commit a crime by harming another person.

Calaveras County District Attorney Barbara Yook, reached by email, declined to discuss the case or the reasons for the reduced charges for Arrellano and Estudillo.

Calaveras County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio, also reached by email, also declined to discuss the case except to say that the investigation is “ongoing.”

Estudillo’s attorney, however, was willing to offer an explanation.

“I believe the charges were dropped because the victims were in fact embellishing the facts surrounding their claim,” said Lawrence Niermeyer. He also said that “the charges were not warranted based upon the actual facts of the circumstances.”

“Unfortunately, my client has been a victim of circumstances. She has been associated with the wrong person,” he said.

Niermeyer also said he believes his client will not be convicted of the remaining charges against her. He also said that, as far as he knows, Estudillo is still in Mexico after having been deported. She is scheduled to be back in court on Feb. 7.

Even though bail was reduced for both defendants in late October, they faced the additional challenge of proving that any bail they posted was not obtained through criminal conduct. Estudillo was able to do that when Larry Manes, the father of her child and the owner of a masonry business, provided the funds and showed a judge bank documents to demonstrate he earned the money legally.

Despite the objection of the district attorney, a judge found on Nov. 14 that the bail money had not been feloniously obtained. A week later at the next hearing on the case, Niermeyer reported that Estudillo had been “deported” to Mexico.

Arrellano remains in custody. She is scheduled to return to court on Jan. 12. Her attorney, Brian Chavez-Ochoa of Valley Springs, did not immediately respond to a phone message left Wednesday asking for his comment on the reduced charges.

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