West Point

Attorney: marijuana grow accusers fabricated story

By Jason Cowan, The Union Democrat, @jcowan1031

Many of the allegations against two women who authorities said were involved in kidnapping and human trafficking at a marijuana grow in West Point last year were made up, an attorney who represents one suspect said Monday.

Brian Chavez-Ochoa, who represents Guadalupe Arrellano, said the four Modesto men who asserted they were kidnapped, forced to work at the operation, beaten and escaped only when they learned they’d be killed at the end of the harvest season did not know his client.

Further investigation and evidence provided to the Calaveras County District Attorney revealed they did know his client, the Valley Springs-based attorney said.

“I believe they embellished the story,” Chavez-Ochoa said.

The property was raided in July 2016, and the women were arrested in September. Arrellano and Medarda Estudillo were charged with numerous felony accusations that included human trafficking, kidnapping, criminal threat activity and firearm usage.

Just about all the serious charges were either dismissed or vacated for both women on Oct. 27. The same day, Arrellano pleaded not guilty to three misdemeanor charges stemming from the raid, and Estudillo pleaded the same to a felony battery with serious injury and two misdemeanor marijuana allegations.

A jury trial is scheduled for April 12 for Arrellano. It is scheduled to last three days. She remains in custody on $5,000 bail. Chavez-Ochoa said they haven’t made any attempts to free her. He declined to explain why.

Officials with the District Attorney’s Office said last week they could not comment on the status of Arrellano. Her case is still pending.

Estudillo reached a plea agreement with the DA on Feb. 7 that resulted in a 124-day sentence and three years of probation in return for a no-contest plea on the two marijuana misdemeanors. The felony charge was dismissed.

Estudillo had 62 days credit for time served and another 62 for conduct at the time of her plea agreement.

Multiple attempts to reach representatives with the DA over the past week for comment regarding Estudillo were not successful.

Telephone calls to correspond with Estudillo’s attorney Lawrence Niermeyer the last week were also not returned.

A press conference last September painted a vivid picture of the scene based on testimony from the four men. Law enforcement authorities said the men, while being held hostage, slept on cots in the open surrounded by trash. Their names were not released.

Chavez-Ochoa said he did not know why the four men allegedly fabricated the story. He did not explain how well the men knew his client but said they were familiar enough with each other for the charges to be dropped.

The attorney said he did not know the identity of the four men. Calaveras County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio deferred all requests to the DA when asked to identify the men.

Chavez-Ochoa said he does not think the publicity surrounding the raid will have any ramifications on the ability for his client to have a fair trial.

“I don’t think there’s necessarily been sufficient press coverage to file a change of venue motion,” he said. “I haven’t ruled that out. I really don’t think it’s risen to that level yet where the court would grant it.”

He did not blame authorities for the news conference. He said the agency fell victim to believing what was said said. They were acting in good faith and were mislead. He said the fabrication hurts the credibility of the four men.

Chavez-Ochoa debated characterizations by law enforcement during the press conference that alleged the marijuana garden was illegal. He said his client was operating at a time when the application process on marijuana cultivation was in flux.

“There was a lot of unknowns of what was happening. The status of what one could and could not do,” he said. “I would suggest that there was an open door to marijuana. … I think it was a snapshot if you will of what was happening in well over 1,000 grows in the county.”

Capt. Jim Macedo said during the conference last year the street value of the marijuana from the garden was between $18 million and $60 million. Cultivation included up to 23,245 plants. The site was not an applicant under the Calaveras urgency ordinance that permitted cultivation to qualified registrants.

Chavez-Ochoa said they will discuss the concept of application under the urgency ordinance during trial.

Numerous outside agencies such as the FBI, Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office, Angels Camp Police Department and Cal Fire assisted Calaveras agencies with the scene last September.

Gina Swankie, public affairs specialist with the Sacramento Field Office of the FBI, said the agency assisted the Calaveras Sheriff’s Office at its request, but could not comment when asked for a statement because the case is an ongoing local, not federal, matter.

Sgt. Andrea Benson, public information officer for the Tuolumne Sheriff’s Office, said the agency deployed a SWAT team to search the area but deferred all questions again to Calaveras authorities.

Lindy Shoff, a resource management secretary information officer for Cal Fire, said Cal Fire peace officers assisted the Calaveras Sheriff’s Office with scene security and marijuana eradication but were not involved with the investigation at all. She deferred questions regarding the investigation to the Calaveras Sheriff’s Office.

Representatives with the Angels Camp Police Department could not be reached for comment.

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The Union Democrat
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