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Marijuana bust might spur trials in federal, state courts

A Josephine County narcotics prosecutor said he is prepared to pursue in state court the cases of 18 adults arrested in connection with a large marijuana-growing operation in the national forest outside Selma.

However, the U.S. Attorneys' office in Medford reported that the operation is also under review for possible federal charges.

With 18 co-defendants linked to growing operations in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, the prosecution is one of the largest seen in Josephine County Circuit Court, said Rafael Caso, a Josephine County deputy district attorney who handles drug cases.

"The federal prosecutors do a lot of large cases here," he said. "The feds have more money than we do."

Caso said while prosecutors would aggressively pursue the case, prosecutions of workers at the production level won't stop an international drug-trafficking operation.

"People are, I don't want to say expendable, but people are a dime a dozen," he said.

But seizing the drugs is an important deterrent, Caso said.

"With any drug ring — whether it's marijuana or meth or cocaine — if you take away the product, you take away their financial support," he said. "Taking the product is a great way to deter cartels."

On Aug. 24, the Southern Oregon Multi-Agency Marijuana Eradication and Reclamation team, also known as SOMMER, raided a massive marijuana-growing complex that sprawled over an estimated 5 acres on steep hills burned in 2002's Biscuit fire.

Working over several days in late August, the eradication team removed more than 40,000 pot plants estimated to be worth as much as $120 million.

Authorities started rounding up suspects in the hills on Aug. 23 and continued to make arrests through Sept. 2, records show.

In addition to the 18 adults arrested in the hills west of Selma in the past two weeks, one 17-year-old boy was taken into custody and will face charges in the juvenile justice system, the Grants Pass Daily Courier reported.

All of those arrested have been charges with possession, delivery and manufacture of marijuana. Affidavits allege that the suspects were involved in "commercial drug offenses," noting the large amount of marijuana involved and modifications made to the land to grow it. All but two of the named suspects also are held on suspicion of being in the country illegally.

Josephine County officials arrested five men — David Barragan-Salazar, 37, of Vancouver, Wash.; Moises Garcia-Zuniga, 30, of Riverside, Calif.; Ricardo Cardenas-Madriz, 25, of Sacramento, Calif.; Constantino Chipres-Zamora, 28, no address listed; and Pedro Alvarez-Gutierrez, 36, no address listed — around 2 a.m. Aug. 23 on a forest road. The men wore camouflage clothing, carried equipment commonly found in the growing operations of drug-trafficking organizations and had two guns stashed under the passenger seat of their vehicle, affidavits said. In addition to the drug charges, they were charged with illegal possession of a concealed firearm.

On Aug. 28, investigators arrested Salvador Solorio-Barragan, 46, of Del Hay, Calif.; and Deysy Vargas, 21 of Penair, Calif., on Illinois River Road, which approaches the same large growing site.

Noe Rosales-Farias, 36, no address listed, was arrested Aug. 31 near Sam Brown Campground.

On Sept. 1, a U.S. Forest Service officer arrested Felipe Ramos-Garcia, 46, of Coolidge, Ariz., on Chrome Ridge Road. He faces drug charges, but no immigration hold.

Two groups were arrested on Sept. 2. One group was stopped in the 24000 block of Briggs Valley Road and members of a family, including three teenagers, from Mount Angel were stopped in the 10400 block of Galice Road.

The family included Maria Usenia Pardo-Soto, 19; Maria Guadalupe Pardo-Soto, 49; and Basilio Pardo-Silva, 47, as well as the 17-year-old boy and a 14-year-old boy who was detained, but not charged. The 19-year-old, who didn't face an immigration hold, posted $5,000 security on $50,000 bail and was released from jail.

Other arrests on the Sept. 2 included Pablo Nieto-Casas, 24, and Jose Carlos Nieto-Casas, 22, both of Santa Rosa, Calif.; Daniel Santiago-Sanchez, 32, of Porterville, Calif.; Salvador Armando Martinez, 49, and Jesus Humberto Soto-Valencia, 25, both of Salem; and Rene Pascasio-Ruiz, 25, no address listed.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 541-776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.