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Sheriff Links Murder to Drug Cartel

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Standing behind 825 pounds of processed marijuana and an arsenal of seized weapons, Sheriff Bill Brown linked a homicide victim to a major drug cartel. Check back for regular updates.

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Standing behind 825 pounds of confiscated marijuana at a Wednesday news conference, Sheriff Bill Brown drew a link between the murder of a man found last month in a sleeping bag near Highway 154 and a pot farm that several days later marked the spot of the largest weed seizure in Santa Barbara County history.

Brown said a "sophisticated" cartel from Mexico is believed responsible for cultivating the large field of marijuana on Highway 1 near Lompoc, whose 90,000 plants were confiscated and burned by sheriff’s deputies in late September. The crop was worth an estimated $275 million.

On Wednesday, he announced that deputies on Oct. 20 arrested five men, one of them the younger brother of the slain man, Adan Cervantes Ruiz. All six men were from Perris in Riverside County.

On Sept. 17, the 23-year-old Ruiz’s body was found along Highway 154 about a mile east of Highway 101 with a single gunshot wound to the chest. Brown said he believes Adan Ruiz’s younger brother, Reyes Cervantes Ruiz, 20, was present the night of the shooting.

The other arrested men were Jesus Monje Gutierrez, 25; Efren Equijua Arreola, 36; Servanto Avalos Cabrera, 20; and Jose Juan Villa Cabrera, 25. The men — who Brown said are all illegal immigrants from Mexico — were not booked on suspicion of homicide. Rather, they were taken to Santa Barbara County Jail on suspicion of cultivation, possession and sale of marijuana, he said.

But Brown said "of special importance is that fact that" Reyes Ruiz was with his older brother at the time of the shooting.

"During his arrest, Reyes Ruiz was uncooperative and had to be disarmed by detectives as he reached for a firearm," Brown told a roomful of reporters.

The 825 pounds of marijuana, along with a display of firearms and $80,000 in cash, were seized at the mens’ mobile homes in Perris, deputies said. Brown estimated the marijuana in the room to be worth $2.6 million.

Although the 90,000 plants found on Highway 1 were burned, authorities said some of the processed marijuana on hand could have come from the field near Lompoc.

Detectives believe Ruiz was shot near the fields and then dumped along Highway 154 some 20 miles away, Brown said.

Brown said the recent bust appears consistent with a statewide trend. As smuggling drugs across the Mexican border becomes increasingly difficult, more and more cartels are conducting business in the United States from start to finish.

"They are discovering that California’s climate is very apropo for growing marijuana," he said, adding that the practice used to be confined to remote parts of mostly Northern California, but seems to be spreading to more visible places.

He said the group harvesting the field near Lompoc may be part of a larger organization.

"This is a very, very sophisticated operation," he said. "They go to great lengths to bring water into the area."

Sheriff’s deputies were led to the men in Perris by tracking down nine other suspects at the Motel 6 on Villa Real in Carpinteria.

Over the course of interviewing the nine suspects, deputies discovered they were in the United States illegally, and turned them over to federal immigration authorities, Brown said.

"Visitors to our national forests and backcountry, as well as ranchers who may be in remote areas on their property, should be aware and cautious of these marijuana cultivation operations," he said. "The individuals tending these grows are typically armed, and prepared to defend their crops."

The Sheriff’s Department is urging anyone with more information about the homicide or marijuana field to call the Santa Maria office at 805.934.6170 or 805.681.4150.

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