MEDFORD — A Wolf Creek man has been sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for masterminding a large-scale marijuana garden staffed by armed illegal immigrants he recruited from California.
Henry Xavier Villa, 54, was sentenced Monday in Medford's U.S. District Court for growing 8,918 marijuana plants on his 160-acre property in Wolf Creek. The property also was seized by the federal government in a forfeiture action.
Drug Enforcement Administration investigators determined Villa's crop was valued at approximately $6 million, according to a press release from prosecuting U.S. Attorney Judith R. Harper.
"Like several marijuana grows we've encountered, there was millions of dollars involved," Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters said Tuesday.
The case began in 2007 when DEA agents, with help from several local law enforcement agencies, including the Jackson County Sheriff's Office and Ashland police, raided Villa's property.
They encountered three illegal immigrants residing on the property who helped tend the marijuana garden.
"These grows are very labor-intensive," Winters said. "It takes more than one person to handle a grow of 9,000 mature plants."
The illegal immigrants were armed with guns, one of which was a short-barreled rifle.
The DEA was able to connect Villa to the operation through his cell phone records and records of local purchases of garden equipment and supplies.
Investigators also learned Villa made trips to California to recruit illegal immigrants to work on the garden.
Winters said it is not uncommon to find illegal immigrants working on marijuana gardens because it can be hard for them to find good paying work. He also said some have been found to be connected to Mexican cartels who run large drug operations along the West Coast.
"We also have seen them work on marijuana grows to pay for their transport across the border," Winters said. "They sometimes have to repay Mexican cartels who transfer them across the border. This can be expensive."
Villa was convicted of conspiracy to manufacture marijuana and manufacturing marijuana during a three-day trial in November 2009.
The case has been tied up in court since then, with the sentencing finally coming Monday in U.S. District Court Judge Owen Panner's courtroom.
Panner increased Villa's sentence after taking into account his managerial role in the operation, his possession of firearms and attempts to obstruct justice.
Court documents show Villa threatened to kill one witness if the witness testified about Villa's role in the operation. Villa also traveled to California at one point in an attempt to get another witness to lie to the police.
As part of the conviction, U.S. marshals seized Villa's 160-acre property in rural Wolf Creek and have agreed to maintain it until it is sold. The federal government will hire an appraiser to determine the estimated cost of the land prior to sale, court documents show.
Winters said large-scale marijuana gardens remain a problem in Northern California and Southern Oregon despite the recent increase in illegal medical marijuana operations found throughout the area.
"The illegal medical marijuana growers usually cannot grow to such a large scale as the Wolf Creek operation," Winters said. "In these large grows, millions of dollars are at stake."Officers and deputies from Oregon State Police, the Bureau of Land Management, the Oregon National Guard, the Josephine County Marijuana Eradication Team and the Douglas County Narcotics Team assisted in the investigation.
Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.