By Giuseppe Ricapitio

The Union Democrat

They slept on camp cots out in the open with a nearby hut used for food storage fashioned from uneven logs. Plastic tarps lay strewn across the ground or balled into clumps, surrounded by trash.

Photos provided during a news conference Tuesday at the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office in San Andreas displayed the ramshackle and squalid living conditions where authorities allege four Modesto men had been held hostage at an illegal marijuana plantation in the West Point area for four months earlier this year.

The men, whose names were not released, fled the camp after they learned they were to be murdered when the harvest was over, Calaveras County Capt. Jim Macedo said.

Authorities were alerted to the situation on July 27 when a West Point resident reported four men with various injuries, including bruises and black eyes, came to their house requesting the assistance of law enforcement.

Macedo said the victims had been exposed to prolonged physical abuse. One victim was hospitalized.

“Injuries tend to paint a picture of what’s going on,” Macedo said. “It reveals their emotional state about what happened.”

Macedo said the backcountry of West Point can seem like “the middle of nowhere” to someone not familiar with the area.

“It can seem like you’re a world away from your home. This is a direct result of the greed and money that’s involved with marijuana.”

Two of the men were originally picked up by a woman at a business known as a rendezvous point for day laborers. The woman said she needed work done on a home in Calaveras County.

After working at the location for a few days, the victims were taken by force to a West Point parcel of land to assist with the illegal cultivation of 23,245 marijuana plants, Macedo said.

Judging by the amount of food at the site, Macedo and others concluded that this “was a big operation.”

A cask of Jose Cuervo tequila, beads and jewelry, and a shrine to Santa Muerte, commonly known as the patron folk saint of narcotics traffickers, were found in Modesto. Calaveras County

Sheriff’s booking logs both note the suspects had addresses in Modesto.

The camp was using an illegal water source to maintain the operation, Macedo said.

“They were outdoors largely while in captivity,” he said. “Some evidence shows they were held against their will.”

Macedo noted that the estimated street value of the marijuana at the location ranged from $18 million to $60 million. The grow was not registered under current medical marijuana laws in Calaveras, he added.

During the prisoners’ captivity, the growers were able to uncover the victim’s address in Modesto and proceeded to threaten family members. They insisted there would be consequences if they reported the kidnapping situation to the police.

At one point, some family members were reunited with the captives at the grow site in West Point, Macedo said. Two additional relatives, both men, were taken captive during the meeting and forced to work on the plantation with the original prisoners.

The victims complained about the poor working conditions and their inability to make regular phone contact with their families, inciting the ire of one of the armed men at the site.

This man “wanted to kill the victims,” Macedo said.

One of the growers reportedly responded that the hostages couldn’t be killed, because the marijuana cultivation hadn’t yet been completed. Once the harvest was finished, she reportedly said, they would be allowed to kill the victims.

The same day, one of the guards threatened a victim with a knife and attempted to stab him.

That’s when the four men decided to make their escape.

During the ensuing raid and investigation of the plantation, multiple cell phones, two firearms and $10,000 in cash were located.

Macedo said investigators are still looking for two additional male suspects.

Two women were taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement services after an arrest on Sept. 14. Investigators are reviewing additional charges for the women, who were identified as the ring-leaders of the grow operation.

The pair has a history of “using several aliases,” Macedo said. Macedo said he had been told they were in the country illegally.

“There was mention of cartel activity that has not been corroborated at this time,” he continued.

The FBI, Tuolumne County Sheriff's Department, Angels Camp Police Department, CalFire and others contributed to the investigation.

Guadalupe Sierra Arrellano, 43, known as “Lupe,” and Medara Urbietta Estudillo, 44, known as “Daniella,” were arrested on suspicion of human trafficking, kidnapping, battery with serious bodily injury, terrorist threats, cultivating marijuana and possessing marijuana for sale. They are being held in the Calaveras County Jail on $800,000 bail each.

Arrellano was also arrested on an outstanding warrant for failure to appear in court on a March 2013 citation for driving without a license.

Both women appeared at arraignment hearings Tuesday morning. Urbietta’s attorney asked Judge Grant Barrett to continue the hearing before she entered a plea.

Both women required the use of a Spanish-language interpreter at the hearings. Urbietta, looking docile and quiet, sat between her interpreter and her lawyer while they relayed information to her.

The arraignment hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Nov. 7 in Courtroom 1 at Calaveras County Superior Court.

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