Four brothers kidnapped and forced to work on marijuana farm in Northern California
Los Angeles Times - By. Hailey Branson-Potts - 09/22/2016
Authorities in Northern California are investigating possible drug cartel activity after four Modesto brothers say they were kidnapped, tortured and forced to work for more than five months on an enormous, illegal marijuana farm under the threat of violence.
The Calaveras County Sheriff’s Department this week announced the arrest of two women. Guadalupe “Lupe” Arrellano, 43, and Medarda “Daniella” Urbieta Estudillo, 34, were arrested Sept. 14 in Modesto and charged with human trafficking, kidnapping, battery with serious bodily injury, making terrorist threats and drug charges, authorities said.
Sheriff’s officials said they are still seeking two men in connection with the case.
In February, Arrellano picked up two men from a Modesto business known as a place where day laborers congregate, Calaveras County Sheriff’s Capt. Jim Macedo said at a news conference. She told the men she needed help working on a landscaping project at a home in Calaveras County.
The brothers worked at a home in the small, remote town of West Point for several days before being taken by force to a nearby marijuana cultivation site, where they were threatened, according to the sheriff’s office.
Arrellano got the men’s home address in Modesto and went to the residence, where she told family members that two were working for her on a marijuana farm. She offered to take two more relatives to the site, but told them that if they said anything to law enforcement, their family members would be killed, according to the sheriff’s office.
Two additional brothers went with her to the West Point site, where they were threatened by armed men, taken to their family members and forced to work on the marijuana harvest while their remaining family members in Modesto were continually threatened by the captors, authorities said.
The four men, whose names have not been released, were kept in squalid conditions, sleeping on cots outdoors. They were severely beaten for complaining about the conditions.
At one point, one of the men heard a male captor ask Arrellano whether he could kill the victims, Macedo said. Arrellano reportedly told the captors no because they were nearly done with the marijuana harvest, but that they could be killed after they finished their work. About that time, one of the captors tried to stab one of the victims, holding a gun and knife at the same time, according to the sheriff’s office.
That night, on July 27, the men escaped and ran to a West Point home, where a resident called authorities. Three of the men had “significant” visible injuries.
The injured men were taken to a nearby hospital, and one had to be taken to a trauma center because of the severity of his wounds.
On July 28, law enforcement officials from Calaveras and Tuolumne counties and federal agencies served a search warrant near Bald Mountain Road, where they located the growing operation.
Investigators found 23,245 marijuana plants with an estimated street value between $18 and $60 million, at least two firearms, multiple cellphones and $10,000 in cash.
“There was mention of cartel activity that has yet to be corroborated,” Macedo said. “There was a specific cartel mentioned, however we have not corroborated that information at this time.”
Macedo said it was a “large-scale investigation” involving numerous local and federal agencies. The amount of food stored on the marijuana growing site indicated it was a large operation, he said.
Macedo described the remote location as a “long, narrow, winding road to the middle of nowhere.”
“It can seem like you’re a world away from your home,” he said.
While authorities searched the property, one man was seen running from investigators, according to the sheriff’s department. A backpack was found along the trail on which he ran; a handgun was inside.
No arrests were made at the time of the search, but authorities in the weeks following served search warrants at multiple locations in Stanislaus County.
Authorities said they found a religious shrine to Santa Muerte, the folk saint of death popular among drug traffickers and cartels, during a search of a Modesto home linked to the case.
Macedo said Arrellano and Urbieta Estudillo were in the country illegally and were known to use several aliases.
In May, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors made it legal for farmers to grow medical marijuana for commercial sale. The urgency ordinance was enacted in part to help the struggling county recover from last year’s devastating Butte fire, which charred more than 70,000 acres, destroyed 549 homes and killed two people.
Authorities said the West Point marijuana farm was unregistered.