A federal grand jury in Sacramento on Thursday indicted four men who authorities blame for the death of El Dorado Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Ishmael two weeks ago, part of a concerted effort by federal and local prosecutors to bring maximum penalties against the suspects.
The indictments came as Sheriff John D’Agostini and other law enforcement leaders severely criticized California’s sanctuary state laws for hindering their investigation. D’Agostini also singled out Gov. Gavin Newsom for failing to attend Ishmael’s funeral Tuesday.
“He had an important meeting with PG&E,” the sheriff said. “One morning out of his busy schedule to respect my deputy and his family I don’t think is too much to ask.”
The governor’s office said later that Newsom sent representatives with a letter from him to Ishmael’s family.
“Governor Newsom was represented in Deputy Ishmael’s funeral by his public safety liaison Wayne Bilowit, who presented a letter to the family on behalf of the governor and CHP Commissioner Warren Stanley,” spokeswoman Vicky Waters wrote in an email.
Officials blast California sanctuary, marijuana laws
D’Agostini’s remarks came during a news conference in Sacramento with U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott and El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson, and officials used the occasion to also lash out at California’s marijuana laws.
They also emphasized that investigators were unable to determine the identity of the alleged gunman for two days because of state law that limits the ability of federal immigration authorities to question county jail inmates.
Eventually, Scott said, he was able to speak with state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who helped pave the way for the FBI to seek information about the suspected gunman and his alleged accomplice, both who were eventually identified as Mexican nationals who were in this country illegally.
“We shouldn’t have to go through these hurdles to try to figure out who two guys are from Mexico who just killed a deputy sheriff,” Scott said.
The sheriff added that the delay in determining who the suspects were may mean that others who may have been involved in the conspiracy were able to get away.
“Please call this what this is,” the sheriff asked reporters at the news conference. “Don’t soften it.
“This tragedy was due to an illegal alien tending an illegal marijuana grow who murdered my deputy. That’s what it is.”
Scott made similar comments, saying he knows the term “is not politically correct,” but that it fits the legal definition of the charges in the indictment.
“I have been informed in the last 24 hours that (Homeland Security) has confirmed that both are citizens of Mexico and neither has legal status in the United States,” he said. “Thus, they are legally correctly described as ‘illegal aliens.’ ”
No decision on seeking death penalty yet
Scott and Pierson said they have been working closely to bring charges against the suspects in both their jurisdictions.
Three of the suspects face charges in El Dorado Superior Court in Ishmael’s death, including two — Christopher Ross and Juan Carlos Vasquez Orozco — who have been charged with murder. They have entered not guilty pleas, and Pierson said it is too early to say whether he will seek the death penalty against either.
All four were indicted on federal charges Thursday of conspiracy to manufacture marijuana, manufacturing marijuana, and discharge of a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking offense.
The two Mexican citizens also are charged with being undocumented immigrants in possession of a firearm.
If convicted on the federal conspiracy and marijuana counts, the defendants could face up to 40 years in federal prison.
Case began with 911 call to marijuana grow
Ross is the man who authorities say called 911 early on Oct. 23 and reported that thieves were stealing marijuana plants from a garden at his Somerset home on Sand Ridge Road.
Ishmael and an off-duty San Joaquin County sheriff’s deputy doing a ride-along responded and spoke with Ross, then went to the marijuana field and ordered anyone there to come out.
Instead, someone opened fire, striking Ishmael above his bullet-proof vest and killing him within minutes. The other deputy also was wounded, but both returned fire and the suspected gunman, Vasquez, also was wounded.
Following the shootout, authorities say Ross’ call was a ruse and that he actually had agreed to let the men grow marijuana at the home in exchange for $13,000. Ross was paid $2,000 in cash and given a Jeep Cherokee valued at $8,000, but became concerned he would not get the remaining $3,000 and called 911 when he saw the growers harvesting plants, officials say.
Vasquez Orozco, 20, is believed to have been in charge of security at the grow site, which authorities say was one of at least two in the area being coordinated by conspirators based in Mexico.
Another Mexican citizen, Ramiro Bravo Morales, 22, is suspected of also being at the grow site when the firefight erupted. He had entered the country illegally about six months earlier, officials say.
A fourth man, Jorge Lamas, was charged later after authorities said they had determined he was part of the marijuana growing conspiracy.
Lamas, an American citizen who has spent much of his life living in Mexico, was charged in federal court along with the other three on counts of conspiracy and manufacturing marijuana and weapons charges.
Lamas was allegedly the foreman overseeing the grow site in Somerset, as well as a separate site in Georgetown. He made a separate 911 call about five hours after the firefight in Somerset and reported that his Georgetown site was being targeted by thieves, officials say.
He hung up during the call, but authorities tracked him through his cell phone and later arrested him in Yuba City. Court documents say Lamas was being paid $150 a day by someone in Mexico to oversee the two grow sites.
Gun used in slaying still being traced
The suspects are believed to have used only one weapon in the slaying, a 9 mm handgun, and authorities still are trying to trace where it came from. So far, the last legal sale of the weapon is believed to have been in 1984 to a now-deceased man in the unincorporated Shasta County community of Burney.
Officials say the legalization of marijuana in California three years ago has led to a dramatic change in how conspirators based in Mexico grow marijuana in California for the black market.
Now, instead of establishing grow sites in remote areas of national forest lands, smaller grow sites are cropping up near rural neighborhoods that are easier to access and can be leased from homeowners.
Both the Somerset and Georgetown grow sites were illegal under state and federal law, Pierson said, adding that the burgeoning market for marijuana and a lack of strong state regulations are contributing to a spike in violence.
“That is what we are dealing with, the violence, the escalation of violence because it’s worth so much money on the black market and it hasn’t been properly managed or regulated,” he said.
Scott, the U.S. attorney, echoed those comments, saying legalization of marijuana at the state level has contributed to an increase in black market grows used to send most of the pot grown in California out of state..
“I said this before this product was legalized, I’ll say it again,” Scott said. “It is an incredible level of naivete to say, ‘Oh, if we legalize it the black market will go away. That is ridiculous.”
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