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Thursday, February 21 , 2019, 2:40 am | Fair 45º


Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Detectives Make 17 Arrests in Narcotics Investigation

The search continues for four more suspects and a possible homicide victim

The Narcotics Bureau of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department has concluded a six-month investigation of a missing person that tied into a marijuana cultivation operation in the pristine hills of Santa Barbara County inside Los Padres National Forest.

During the case, narcotics detectives identified an outdoor marijuana garden being maintained in the rural foothills off of West Camino Cielo Road. In addition, detectives identified several Mexican national suspects maintaining and operating the marijuana grow. As the investigation continued, detectives identified two residences in the East Los Angeles/Glendale area associated with the suspects.

On Sept. 11, while detectives were conducting surveillance on the marijuana garden, two associated vehicles were seen leaving the garden. Detectives followed the vehicles into Ventura County, where they coordinated traffic stops on the vehicles with the assistance of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department.

During the traffic stops, five Mexican national suspects were taken into custody and found to be in possession of about 41 pounds of processed marijuana and a loaded semi-automatic handgun. They were all arrested on charges of conspiracy, cultivation of marijuana and possession of marijuana for sale. In addition, one of the suspects was charged with carrying a firearm in the commission of a felony.

On Sept. 12, members of the Santa Barbara Narcotics Bureau and the Glendale Police Department Narcotic Enforcement Team served two search warrants in the East Los Angeles area. While conducting surveillance on the residences beforehand, Glendale detectives attempted to stop a vehicle seen leaving the residence. During the traffic stop, a 15-year-old male, who was driving the vehicle, began ramming the police cars. The juvenile was quickly taken into custody for assault with a deadly weapon on a peace officer.

After taking him into custody, detectives served the search warrants on the residences that were next door to each other. They arrested an adult female running out the back of one of the residences carrying a kilo of cocaine. Detectives arrested another adult male trying to flush a large amount of marijuana down the toilet in the second residence. In total, detectives arrested three adults and on juvenile. During the search of the residences, detectives seized about 71 pounds of processed marijuana, a kilo of cocaine and four semi-automatic handguns.

During the investigation, detectives have learned that the missing person, identified as Jesus Omar Villa of Fresno, was helping maintain the marijuana grow when he died. Although details surrounding his death are unclear, detectives believe it may have been a homicide. Detectives also learned that Villa’s body was buried in an unknown location in the mountains above Santa Barbara.

On Sept. 14, members of the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department’s Narcotic Bureau and volunteer search and rescue team entered and eradicated the marijuana garden off West Camino Cielo. A large majority of the estimated 5,000-plant marijuana operation already had been harvested; however, detectives destroyed more than 200 growing marijuana plants.

Several pesticides and herbicides, a large amount of trash and camping gear were recovered from the grow site. The search and rescue team conducted a thorough search of the area utilizing specially trained cadaver dogs but were unable to locate Villa’s body. In addition, detectives gained information that the suspected growers were collaborating to ignite a brush fire in the area to burn any remaining evidence associated with the marijuana grow and the location of Villa’s body.

The case reached near conclusion Oct. 8, with the service of five search warrants in four counties outside of Santa Barbara County, including San Luis Obispo, Fresno, Los Angeles and Tulare counties.

On that day, authorities made seven arrests, seized about 205 pounds of marijuana worth $615,000, a half-ounce of cocaine and two loaded semi-automatic handguns. Assisting in the search warrants were the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department, Fresno County Sheriff’s Department, Orange Cove Police Department, Tulare County Sheriff’s Department, Drug Enforcement Administration and Glendale Police Department. All of the suspects were booked into the jail in the counties in which they were arrested, pending prosecution.

In total, 15 adults and two juveniles associated with the drug trafficking organization have been taken into custody for a variety of charges. About 350 pounds of marijuana have been seized with a street value of $1 million and more than a kilo of cocaine with a street value of about $105,000. In addition, 11 guns were seized as well as $39,000 in cash. Four suspects are still outstanding, and all have $250,000 warrants for their arrest.

The suspects in custody are Uriel Torres, 32, of Orange Cove; Moises Torres, 30, of Modesto; Arturo Zamora, 23, of Glendale; Marcos Rosales, 36, of Los Angeles; Salvador Cardenas, 33, of Glendale; Reynaldo Olivera, 27, of Glendale; Joba Ortega, 39, of Los Angeles; Bernardo Olvera, 43, of Glendale; Rigoberto Cruz, 39, of Glendale; Rene Vargas, 39, of Cutler; Jose Valdovinos, 45, of Cutler; Saul Cortez, 25, of Cutler; Augustin Cornejo, 21, of Cutler; Alejandro Vargas, 24, of Cutler; and Eloy Chavez, 33, of Orange Cove.

The investigation is ongoing; however, detectives are getting limited cooperation from the suspects they have in custody and Villa’s body may never be found. Detectives are confident that, if Villa’s body is located and it is determined that his death is the result of a homicide, they have their suspect in custody.

— Drew Sugars is a Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department spokesman.

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