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State’s CR 510 pot cases going up in smoke

Five more preliminary hearings set for tomorrow

by Eric Mullens

One of the 11 suspects arrested in October in a large illegal marijuana bust on HC Road 510 is escorted to a sheriff’s vehicle. This week four defendants were released from state charges as the district court found no probable cause for their arrests. All four of those whose state charges were dropped face federal immigration charges and were taken into custody by ICE agents Monday.
WJ file photo by Eric Mullens

WALSENBURG — While the burden of proof in a preliminary hearing is lower than that of a criminal trial, and evidence in a preliminary hearing is weighed in favor of the prosecution; Third Judicial District Deputy DA Steven Sullivan failed to convince the court this week that there was probable cause to bind over all six defendants arrested in connection with a large illegal marijuana operation busted by the sheriff’s office in October.

Sullivan presented two witnesses in the day-long preliminary hearing Monday, November 27 of Amber and Mayra Gallegos, Ulises Garibay, Lazaro Garibay, Gaudencio Nieto, and Damian Villalba, all originally charged with drug felony one (DF1) counts of offenses relating to marijuana/ marijuana concentrate as a result of their arrests on October 12, 2017 at 1545 CR 510 in Huerfano County. Until the preliminary hearing this week, all of the defendants had been held at the Huerfano County Jail on $50,000 bonds.

Sullivan called HCSO Captain Milan Rapo and HCSO Deputy Paul Saunders during the hearing. Neither law enforcement officer was able to testify about the entire arrest incident which involved seven marijuana growing operations at five locations on the county road leading into the Navajo neighborhood west of Walsenburg as neither deputy had been to each location. The properties involved included 1920, 1900, 1609, 1599 and 1545 CR 510.

Rapo testified the sheriff’s office was notified in late September by the Office of Homeland Security and ICE they had Colorado warrants for a fugitive believed to be staying at the 1545 CR 510 property and asked for assistance in serving the search and arrest warrant. The operation got underway mid-morning on Oct. 12, and while the subject of the warrant was not found, a medium size marijuana operation was located at that property and several similar marijuana grows were seen from the location. The sheriff’s office obtained search warrants for the other properties and detained, then arrested a total of eleven individuals believed to be working at, or connected with, the illegal grows.

All of the locations were rental properties owned by John Gandomcar of the Denver area. Gandomcar has not been charged in relation to the cases. The property owner did arrive at the location on Friday, Oct. 13 and, according to Sheriff Bruce 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 regulations.

Rapo testified to the amount of dried or processed marijuana found at each of the locations, and to the similarities and sophistication of the grow sites which were all on adjacent properties located on the east side of the county road.

Saunders testified to his role in the detention of subjects at the 1545 CR 510 location and some conversation he overheard between one of the federal officers and Amber Gallegos in which she said her mother, Mayra, had been staying with her on the property for six months and that she, Amber, believed the marijuana found on that property was medical and being grown for Gandomcar, who did have a medical marijuana license for 75 plants.

Judge Claude Appel only bound Amber and Mayra Gallegos over for trial, and set their arraignment date for 11 am December 11, 2017.

The judge ruled the prosecution did not meet the burden of proof the other four defendants had anything to do with the marijuana operation. Judge Appel also lowered the bond for both of the Gallegos’ from $50,000 cash to $20,000 cash or surety each. He ordered the release of the four other defendants unless there were federal immigration holds on any of them.

Sheriff Newman told the World Journal Tuesday, that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents had come to the jail late Monday and took Ulises Garibay, Lazaro Garibay, Gaudencio Nieto, and Damian Villalba into federal custody.

Tomorrow, Friday, December 1, 2017 five additional defendants in the case, Araesley Daniel Amaro, Celedonio Abarca, Leon Fernandez, Isreal Jimenez and Jose Jimenez will appear in district court in Walsenburg for their preliminary hearings. All of the individuals have been charged with DF1 and are currently being held at the county jail in lieu of $50,000 bonds.

HCSO Captain Ray Walsh said at the time of the original arrests, 9,830 pounds of live plants were removed from the properties. That weight did include stalks and branches, but did not include the hundreds upon hundreds of pounds of drying and processed marijuana that was also found. Local investigators believe the marijuana was worth, conservatively, $2 million.

Investigators said it was 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 in place 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 in October 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.

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