17-year prison term for marijuana ring's kingpin

Fresno-based conspiracy had grows in Placer, El Dorado counties
By: Journal Staff
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The leader of a Sacramento Valley-based marijuana ring caught with a massive outdoor grow operation in the Alta area of Placer County has been sentenced to a 17-year, 6-month prison term.

Uriel Ochoa-Espindola, 44, of Fresno, was the leader of a marijuana-manufacturing operation and interstate drug distribution ring that grew tens of thousands of marijuana plants in Placer, El Dorado and Tehama counties, according to U.S. District Court documents.

Espindola pleaded guilty to a charge of participating in a marijuana-trafficking conspiracy and was sentenced Monday in Sacramento. His sentence was elevated by the ring’s ownership of an arsenal of firearms found by federal agents in searches at several locations. The searches included the seizure of nearly 17,500 pot plants in August 2009 in the Alta area of Placer County.

Judge William Shubb said that because the operation was led by Espindola, he was also responsible for the presence of firearms. The defendant ran “a very serious operation,” he said.

A sentencing memorandum from Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Beckwith stated that 11,000 marijuana plants were found at the El Dorado County grow site and nearly 2,000 were discovered in Tehama County.

“The defendant was one of the largest marijuana traffickers in the Eastern District of California,” Beckwith stated.

The weapons cache included four shotguns, three AK-47 assault rifles and two M-16-style assault rifles.

“The defendant’s two main partners were awash in firearms, and those firearms were used to protect and facilitate the operation,” Beckwith stated.

According to court documents, the ring’s middle managers helped protect and isolate Espindola from possible law-enforcement contact. A total of 10 people were involved in the conspiracy.

After 300 pounds of the ring’s marijuana was seized by investigators in Chicago, Espindola reportedly separated himself from the undercover agents by putting a lieutenant in charge.

As part of the plea bargain, Espindola admitted personally organizing and directing shipments of hundreds of pounds of pot to South Dakota, Colorado, Massachusetts, Washington, and North Carolina.