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Northern California's Illegal Marijuana Trade Takes Deadly Toll

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A youthful adventurer raised in Sonoma County. A Colorado entrepreneur. A former stockbroker from New York.

The three men, who were killed in February during a suspected pot robbery in Forestville, are among at least 18 people who have died since 2006 in Sonoma and Mendocino counties under circumstances involving the sale and cultivation of marijuana.

Last week, three men accused of killing the trio were ordered to stand trial in Sonoma County Superior Court. The preliminary hearing cast a spotlight on the outsized role that marijuana plays in violence on the North Coast.

"Homicides are very uncommon, but homicides involving marijuana are common," Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas said.

Nine of the 18 people were killed during apparent robberies, including the three Forestville victims: Sonoma County native Raleigh Butler, 24; Todd Klarkowski, 42, of Boulder, Colo.; and Richard Lewin, 46, of Huntington, N.Y.

On Oct. 6, 2011, four men planned to buy about 20 pounds of pot from Jose Manuel DeJesus, 33, of Santa Rosa outside a Todd Road market. Instead, the men shot DeJesus dead and took the drugs.

Police said Andre Grant, 31, was shot and killed April 10, 2006, over 25 marijuana plants he tended in his Santa Rosa garage, which at the time were valued at about $21,000. Grant was a medical marijuana patient and police have not publicly identified a suspect in the case.

Celso Madueno, 23, was shot and killed Oct. 19, 2012, when he interrupted intruders who broke into a Redwood Valley home north of Ukiah. Detectives suspect the still-unidentified intruders were drawn to the home by marijuana being grown on the property.

At least three suspected robbers were killed when they allegedly broke into homes to steal marijuana, according to law enforcement accounts.

In 2007, 300 pounds of processed marijuana were at stake when three armed men barged into a Santa Rosa apartment. Maximiliano Izquierdo Martinez, 20, of Windsor was among the robbers who confronted residents at the Beech Avenue apartment. He was shot and killed in the fracas.

Timothy Burger, 21, of Sacramento was after marijuana on Nov. 1, 2010, when he and two accomplices entered a Laytonville home, sheriff's officials said. The resident shot Burger dead during the confrontation.

Detectives believe Pablo Solorio Nunez, 22, of Mexico sought marijuana on Nov. 17, 2011, when he was shot and killed while breaking into a Covelo home. Detectives seized about 100 pounds of marijuana from the house after the shooting.

Other homicides lay bare a more complex dynamic surrounding marijuana and its trade.

Nine of the 18 killings appear to involve various disputes among people involved in growing or selling marijuana. In many of the cases, precise motives in the killings are unclear.

This summer, for example, a Mexican national was gunned down at a pot garden in Mendocino County. The body of Hugo Olea-Lopez, 23, of Upper Lake was found June 17 outside Laytonville at a camp on private land where he had spent three growing seasons growing marijuana. But about 300 pounds of fully mature plants and recently cut-down plants were left behind.

In another case, authorities still are searching for three men suspected in the Sept. 11, 2009, beating death of Raul De Lara Ruiz, 52. Ruiz and the men were growing marijuana together at a Hopland property and both Ruiz and his wife were assaulted during some kind of disagreement over the operation, sheriff's officials said.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said the violence is often a result of complex relationships involved in the marijuana trade. But money plays an undeniable role too.

"The violence we see in most marijuana cases deals with the business portion of marijuana cultivation as well as sales. There's a lot of money there," Allman said.

The three execution-style killings that took place Feb. 5 in Forestville stand apart not only in the death toll but in what the case has revealed about the marijuana trade, Freitas said.

Butler, Klarkowski and Lewin were shot as they sat on the cabin floor, packing bundles of pot. Suspected shooter Mark Cappello, 46, of Central City, Colo., and his suspected accomplices, Odin Dwyer, 38, of Colorado and Dwyer's father, Francis Dwyer, 66, of New Mexico left with 69 pounds of pot, although the amount promised could have been as much as 100 pounds, according to court testimony.

One hundred pounds of pot could be worth at least $200,000, according to some estimates that put the street value of black-market marijuana at about $2,000 per pound.

"The amount of marijuana, the amount of money, the fact that three people were killed," Freitas said. "I had detectives traveling to many, many states over several weeks. The scope of the investigation stands out."

The dynamics of the case echo what investigators have been tracking for years, said Mike Sena, director of the Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

"We have people coming in from all over the country, from British Columbia and Mexico. You've got this huge influx of customers, or brokers, coming in to check quality of the product, folks negotiating prices and pounds, how much they're going to sell," Sena said.

Marijuana production continues to rise, and with such a glut on the market, pot's value is fairly low in Northern California, Sena said. But its value rises the farther it's taken out of state, he said.

Estimates about how much pot flows out and cash flows in to Northern California each year are hard to pin down. One 2010 state report estimated the state's marijuana market at $14 billion.

Whatever the size, the cash economy has a broad effect, padding law enforcement budgets through asset seizures, boosting local business and, some say, raising land prices.

"It's to the point right now where during the grow season, it's difficult for federal agents to rent a hotel room. The prices they're going for are like a big city," Sena said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.) ___

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