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A Mexican man indicted by a federal grand jury in Fresno last August for marijuana cultivation in the Stanislaus National Forest near Tuolumne pleaded guilty Thursday and agreed to pay more than $45,000 in restitution to the government.

Eleno Fernandez-Garcia, 37, pleaded guilty to conspiring to manufacture, distribute, and possess with intent to distribute marijuana related to the operation located in the Basin Creek drainage area, according to a news release from the United States Department of Justice.

Fernandez-Garcia faces a minimum of 10 years to a maximum penalty of life in prison with a $10 million fine when he’s sentenced on Aug. 6.

The sentence will be determined at the discretion of the court, who will evaluate various factors and sentencing guidelines. 

Fernandez-Garcia was additionally charged with manufacturing marijuana and damaging public lands and natural resources in the original indictment.

The court proceedings were heard in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, located in Fresno.

The release also said Fernandez-Garcia agreed to pay $45,688 in restitution to the U.S. Forest Service for the damage that the cultivation operation had on public land.

Court documents reportedly indicated that the cultivation contained 9,654 marijuana plants and 200 pounds of processed marijuana. When Fernandez-Garcia was located, he was in possession of pruning shears and two cell phones covered in marijuana debris.

At the time of his arrest, three people fled from the area, which was characterized as near recreational activities and a spring used for bottled water.

The environmental impacts were described as extensive, the release said, and included the use of the restricted-use chemical aluminum phosphide. 

Fertilizer, a dead raccoon, trash and irrigation tubing were found at the site, and native vegetation was cut down to make room for the marijuana. 

"The grow site was in a grazing permit area where cows roamed freely and had access to the plants and chemicals," the release said. 

The U.S. Forest Service, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) of the California Department of Justice were involved in the investigation into the case, the release said. 

The Integral Ecology Research Center, a non-profit conservation organization, evaluated the environmental damage. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen A. Escobar prosecuted the case.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at gricapito@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 588-4526.

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