Todd Becerra, 38, and Joseph Mirante, 40, both of Tracy, and Shawn Thompson, 43, of Mountain House, were among 19 people arrested as part of what DEA Special Agent in Charge Anthony D. Williams described in a press release Wednesday as a “large-scale marijuana trafficking organization.”
Williams reported that the DEA found 14 marijuana-growing setups in San Joaquin and several Bay Area counties and confiscated 3,606 plants, 96 pounds of processed marijuana valued at $1 million, 36 firearms, a 37mm grenade launcher, eight vehicles, five motorcycles, five boats and about $400,000 in cash.
According to the release, police believe that Steven Ortega Sr., 50, of Byron, and Steven Ortega Jr., 25, of Discovery Bay are the leaders of a drug trafficking ring in which people were willing to grow marijuana in exchange for profit sharing.
Police accused the pair of having two storefronts, Grower’s Choice Hydroponics at 470 W. Larch Road in Tracy and another in Hayward, furnish the grow operation with supplies form the businesses.
The stores are owned by Ortega Sr. and 57-year-old Byron resident Marla Ortega, who was also arrested in the sweep, according to the release. The relation between the pair is unknown.
Anthony Winter, who identified himself as co-owner of the Tracy Grower’s Choice, said the 3-year-old business in Tracy is simply a place for locals to buy indoor gardening supplies and accessories.
“We’re just a regular store that’s serving the community,” said Winter from behind the counter of the store, which was open for business Thursday, May 17.
Winter said the store doesn’t sell marijuana, seeds or anything else related to the illegal use or growing of the plant. A tour of the shop revealed various kinds of fertilizer, pesticides and equipment for indoor gardening.
The DEA release stated, “Many of the operations were set up with sophisticated lighting, water irrigation, ventilation and air-filtration systems.”
Neighbors said they weren’t aware of any illicit activity at Grower’s Choice.
Jason Quilantang, who works in the same strip of commercial spaces as a graphic designer, said it looks like “just a normal business.”
He said Grower’s Choice contracted his workplace, Sign-A-Rama, for work and paid all bills on time.
The Tracy Police Department was one of numerous agencies that partnered with the DEA to conduct the investigation and sweep.
According to Tracy Chief Gary Hampton, investigators worked with the federal agency for more than a year.
“Over the past 12 months, we’ve consistently had an investigative team working on this,” he said.
Hampton added that this week’s bust had nothing to do with a June 2011 sweep in Tracy that led to the arrest of nearly 30 affiliated gang members.
The San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office and San Joaquin Metropolitan Narcotics Task Force also helped with the search and investigation, according to the DEA.
Capt. John Espinoza, who oversees special investigations in the Tracy department, said the DEA approached the Tracy agency to help track down the ring that Espinoza said was “part of a larger network of activity.”
Suspects were also arrested in Oakley, Rio Vista, Fresno, Livermore, Salida, Brentwood, Fremont and Patterson.
Espinoza added that four federal search warrants were served in Tracy on Wednesday.
The defendants were scheduled to appear Thursday in Sacramento Federal Court on various charges of manufacturing marijuana and conspiracy, but results of the hearings were not available as of press time.