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Feds seek forfeiture of guns and money tied to pot operation

Federal agents are making their case to keep firearms and cash seized in connection with alleged marijuana growing operations on national forest lands in Southern Oregon.

According to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Medford in late December, Drug Enforcement Administration agents in 2013 seized 14 firearms and nearly $50,000 in cash at the residence of Alberto Rincon Martinez, 60, of the 600 block of West First St., Phoenix, and from a marijuana grow site near Applegate Lake on Aug. 9, 2013. Martinez was not charged in connection with the case.

According to court records, surveillance footage near the grow site — located off Forest Service Road 20 in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest — showed Martinez, his vehicle and others involved in the grow from May through July 2013. Records also indicate statements from a co-conspirator corroborated the allegations.

Authorities seized 2,828 marijuana plants at the grow site. From Martinez's residence, investigators seized $48,156 from a safe, $1,052 from Martinez's wallet, 43.3 grams of marijuana and 14 firearms believed to be involved in the marijuana operation, including one revolver, seven rifles, two shotguns and four pistols. Also seized were miscellaneous boxes of ammunition, two digital scales, two mobile phones, assorted paperwork and a Sony memory card.

The U.S. Attorney's Office last week filed its most recent court request seeking forfeiture of the money and guns. 

The investigation began May 6, 2013, when U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers responding to a wildfire near Beaver Creek Road and Pete's Camp Creek north of Applegate Lake discovered freshly dug holes, irrigation pipe and a tarp-covered area containing cots, food supplies, a camping stove and two rifles. The next day, Forest Service workers, DEA agents and others from the Southern Oregon Multiagency Marijuana Eradication and Reclamation task force removed 1,277 marijuana plants from the site.

A week before, in late April, a witness reported seeing two men in their 30s near a silver Ford Expedition SUV with California plates and attempting to hide behind a bag of fertilizer, about two miles southwest of the site. Detectives at the Jackson County Sheriff's Office installed surveillance cameras near the roadside pullout, a trail used by the growers near the pullout and at another nearby roadside pullout.

On May 14, 2013, surveillance footage allegedly captured a black Chevy Avalanche pickup with Oregon plates driven by a man identified as Martinez, who greeted two men who exited the brush and placed a backpack in Martinez's vehicle. Martinez later told agents he was showing the area to visiting friends from Los Angeles who wanted to "see the woods." Martinez claimed he knew nothing about growing marijuana in the woods, and said he didn't know who the men in the video were.

Additional footage from other incidents also showed men — some of them armed — collecting tools and supplies delivered to the site in a Ford Expedition. Investigators said they tracked the Ford Expedition and Martinez's Chevy Avalanche at Martinez's Phoenix residence in July 2013 and began surveillance on the vehicles and the residence.

When authorities questioned him about the large sum of money in his safe, Martinez said he didn't believe in banks. He said the seized funds were from a cashed-out 401k, cash savings from his monthly Social Security checks, savings from Martinez's work as a self-employed landscaper and as a farmer in Gold Hill, and Social Security disability and cash settlements derived from an insurance settlement from an auto accident that injured Martinez, his son and his daughter.

Martinez told authorities he had only one marijuana plant at his Phoenix residence for the treatment of cancer.

Donaciano Pardo, who agents said was seen on the forest road with Martinez, allegedly made statements against Martinez after he was pulled over in Steele County, Minnesota, with more than 153 pounds of marijuana and $2,398 in a rented vehicle from Santa Rosa, Calif.

Pardo allegedly told investigators he transported fertilizer and food for Martinez to individuals working in a marijuana grow site. Pardo allegedly told investigators that Martinez grew his marijuana in national forests, and Pardo would travel seven hours from California to Oregon to bring supplies.

Pardo also told investigators that Martinez warned him in October or November 2013 that the DEA had photos of everyone at the grow site and to stay away. According to Pardo, people involved in the operation were ordered to remove as much marijuana as they could in black bags before the plants could be destroyed by the DEA.

Pardo told investigators that Martinez had shown him various locations to grow marijuana, and where water could be found for irrigation. Pardo admitted that he was involved in his own growing operation, and said he had agreed to pay Martinez $5,000 for finding a location, although he'd only paid Martinez $2,500.

According to court records, no federal charges have been filed against Martinez in the case. In Oregon records, Martinez's only prior felony conviction was involvement in a June 23, 2012, cockfight at Willamette Egg Farms in Eagle Point. He pleaded guilty in January 2013 after being arrested with his son, Alberto Martinez Jr., and seven other men caught at the cockfighting event.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.