Five properties involved; 10 arrested; value in the millions
by Eric Mullens
HUERFANO — Ten individuals are in custody following the execution of search warrants for illegal marijuana grow operations discovered last week on CR 510 near Navajo Ranch.
Originally Huerfano County law enforcement provided agency assists in the execution of an arrest warrant with agents from Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Thursday, Oct. 12 at. Huerfano Sheriff Bruce Newman said the subject of that arrest warrant was either not on the property or escaped before he could be arrested. Two people ran from the initial property, one was caught and one got away.
As law enforcement entered the property, large marijuana fields were discovered. Following footprints and looking onto adjoining properties led investigators to obtain search warrants for 1920, 1900, 1609, 1599 and 1545 CR 510.
The sheriff’s office identified seven separate grow sites on the five properties owned by John Gandomcar of Denver. The property owner did arrive at the location on Friday and, according to Sheriff Newman, said he and his spouse have medical marijuana permits allowing a 50 plant and 75 plant operation. However, investigators have obtained information from Huerfano County officials indicating no conditional use permit was ever applied for that would allow for any number of marijuana plants above the 12 per property allowed under county regulation. Sheriff Newman said similar construction of fences, irrigation and processing facilities tied all of the grow operations together. He said investigators were still working to determine who exactly were the ‘official’ tenants of the five properties. Newman said he does not believe the property owner was aware of the extent of the growing activities on his properties.
HCSO Captain Ray Walsh said this week that 9,830 pounds of live plants were removed from the properties. That weight did include stalks and branches, but does not include the hundreds upon hundreds of pounds of drying and processed marijuana that was also found. Local investigators believe the bust is worth, conservatively, $2 million.
Investigators say at this time it is difficult to determine how long the growing operations have been in place. Sheriff Newman said all of the grow operations were sophisticated, having water, filtration, and fertilizer systems as well as drying and processing facilities on location. “This is a high dollar operation, a professional grow,” he said. “I can’t say this was run by a Mexican drug cartel, but it is certainly some cartel’s operation. Somebody spent a lot of money on the wiring and air filtration on the containers,” Newman said.
The live plants found at the sites late last week were mostly mature and between four and eight feet tall. At least one of the marijuana fields discovered had been partially harvested prior to discovery.
The ten individuals arrested in connection with the illegal marijuana operations were Jose Luis Jimenez, 30; Damian Villalba Olaguez, 25; Celedonio Abarca, 25; Ulises Garibay De Los Santos, 19; Lazaro Onofre Gabibay, 24; Isreal Jimenez, 20; Gaudencio Nieto Gutierez, 38; Leon Fernandez, 54; Mayra Gallegos, 56, and Ambar Gallegos, 24.
All of the defendants were advised on their arrest charges in Third Judicial District Court on Monday, Oct. 16 by District Judge Claude Appel. The court appointed attorneys to represent seven of the ten defendants and advised the remaining attorney appointments should be completed by mid-week. One defendant, Damian Villalba Olaguez, has been charged with criminal impersonation and possession of a controlled substance along with the DF-1 marijuana and concentrate charges the remainder of the defendants face.
Bond for each defendant has been set at $50,000 cash only and in lieu of making bond, all were remanded to the custody of the sheriff. Conviction of a DF-1 could result in a department of corrections sentence ranging from 8 to 32 years. All of the defendants in these cases have a return date of Thursday, November 2.
It is believed seven of the ten defendants are undocumented immigrants and Sheriff Newman said some paperwork was found at the various home site locations indicating some individuals arrested may be from Mexico, Cuba, and Colombia.
After the search warrants were approved, sheriff’s deputies began the back breaking process of eradicating all of the illegal marijuana and searching the various buildings located on the properties.
No firearms were discovered during the search and, as of this week, no stolen property has been found at any of the homes. Deputies, aided by Huerfano County Road and Bridge staff, who arrived with front end loaders and a very large roll-off container, worked Thursday and Friday to take down all of the plants and to log the other marijuana concentrate found at the sites.
Deputies had to use saws, chainsaws, axes and machetes to cut the plants down over the two day period.
Additional arrests or additional local changes are not anticipated in this case. Sheriff Newman said some of the defendants may face some kind of federal immigration charges in the future.
Despite the large bust, Sheriff Newman told the World Journal, “There’s a lot more (illegal grows) out there, not just in that area, but all over the county.”