U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced the eight-count indictment Wednesday, May 30, after it was unsealed May 29.
Todd Becerra, 38, and Joseph Mirante, 40, both of Tracy, and Shawn Thompson, 43, of Mountain House, are among those accused of participating in an operation to grow and distribute marijuana.
The indictment alleges that Steven Ortega Sr., 50, of Byron, and Steven Ortega Jr., 25, of Discovery Bay — owners of Grower’s Choice Hydroponics stores in Tracy, at 470 W. Larch Road, and in Hayward — furnished lighting and other equipment used to grow marijuana in warehouses and homes, including residences in Tracy and one in Mountain House.
Nineteen people were arrested during a May 16 sweep. Eight people were arrested in the following days, according to a statement from Lauren Horwood of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Warrants were issued for the arrest of the remaining five people.
All were charged with conspiracy to manufacture or distribute or intent to distribute marijuana.
On May 17, the day following the initial roundup, Anthony Winter, who identified himself as co-owner of the Tracy Grower’s Choice, said the store did not sell marijuana, seeds or any items related to the illegal growing of the plant.
Prosecutors allege that Ortega Sr. and Ortega Jr. received initial capital and a share of the harvested marijuana from growers in exchange for equipment and that they laundered proceeds from drug sales through their business.
After the marijuana was harvested, federal prosecutors allege, it was sold in large quantities, often to out-of-state drug traffickers.
While Ortega Sr. remains in custody, Ortega Jr. was released on $100,000 bail.
Mirante and Becerra are both out on $50,000 bail. Thompson is still in custody, according to Horwood.
Citing phone conversations tapped by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the indictment alleges that 36 firearms and a 37mm grenade launcher confiscated during the arrest raids were used to defend the trafficking ring’s grow houses.
“We will continue to target sophisticated interstate drug trafficking organizations that protect their operations with firearms,” Wagner said. “The use of legitimate businesses to facilitate marijuana cultivation and launder the proceeds of trafficking is a classic feature of such organizations.”
At the time of the arrests, DEA officials reportedly found 14 marijuana-growing setups in San Joaquin County and several Bay Area counties. They reported confiscating 3,606 plants, 96 pounds of processed marijuana valued at $1 million, eight vehicles, five motorcycles, five boats and about $400,000 in cash, in addition to the weapons.
Agents said they also found 17 electrical bypasses used by alleged marijuana cultivators. According to the DEA, they were used to steal electricity, as grow houses require lots of electricity to operate.
The case against the alleged traffickers is the culmination of an investigation by the DEA, the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation and other agencies in Northern California, including the Tracy Police Department.
Though the statutory penalty for the conspiracy charge is 10 years to life in prison, the actual sentences of any convicted suspects will be determined at the discretion of the court in accordance with sentencing guidelines, the DEA reported.
The next hearing will be June 21, when both the prosecution and the defense will tell the court how much evidence they need to sift through, said Lauren Horwood, spokeswoman for the Eastern District Court of California. Because of the number of defendants involved, Horwood said she thought attorneys for both sides would request more time from the judge at that hearing to review evidence before proceeding with the case.