EL DORADO COUNTY, California -- Federal officials have charged a fourth man in connection with last week’s marijuana field shootout that killed El Dorado County sheriff’s Deputy Brian Ishmael, saying the new defendant was part of a conspiracy run out of Mexico that oversaw two marijuana grows in rural areas of Somerset and Georgetown.
Jorge Lamas, an American citizen who has spent much of his time living in Mexico, has been charged in a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Sacramento with conspiracy to manufacture, manufacturing at least 50 marijuana plants and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense.
The weapons charge stems from the discovery of a 9 mm handgun believed to have been the weapon used to kill Ishmael at a grow site in Somerset on Sand Ridge Road.
Lamas is believed to have been the foreman overseeing that site, as well as a separate marijuana growing operation in Georgetown, federal court documents say.
Suspect paid $150 a day by someone in Mexico
“After his arrest, Lamas was interviewed by law enforcement officer,” an affidavit from U.S. Drug Administration Task Force Officer Dave Stevenson says. “Lamas admitted to participating in a marijuana cultivation conspiracy that was run out of Mexico.
“Lamas was paid $150 a day to supervise related marijuana cultivation operations divided into smaller marijuana gardens on rural private land. Lamas was paid by a person in Mexico.”
The use of smaller grow sites on private lands rather than the traditional use of huge pot grows in isolated National Forest lands is a trend that law enforcement sources say has been growing since California voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2016.
With state marijuana-growing penalties confusing and relatively minor, officials say drug cartels have moved away from having to haul growing equipment far into forests and instead have begun renting grow sites from individuals that the marijuana growers can easily drive to.
El Dorado deputy shot after 911 call
That is the situation officials believe Deputy Ishmael ran into in the early-morning hours of Oct. 23 as he was responding to a 911 call from an individual on Sand Ridge Road in Somerset reporting that someone was stealing his marijuana plants.
Ishmael and an off-duty San Joaquin County sheriff’s deputy responded just before 1 a.m. and spoke to the man who made the 911 call – identified by authorities as Christopher Ross – then went to the grow site and called for anyone in the field to come out.
Instead, someone opened fire from the field, striking Ishmael in the foot and in his chest above his bulletproof vest. The deputy died at the scene within minutes, and his partner was wounded. Both deputies managed to return fire and wounded one of the suspects.
Three suspects initially charged, two with murder
Authorities later arrested three suspects.
Juan Carlos Vasquez-Orozco, the alleged gunman, was charged with murder, assault with a deadly weapon and other counts in El Dorado Superior Court. Authorities say the 20-year-old suspect is from Mexico but that they have not been able to determine yet whether he was in the United States legally.
Court documents say that suspect was in charge of security at the Somerset pot grow and opened fire because he saw lights and believed thieves were coming to steal the 100 mature pot plants later found growing there.
His alleged accomplice, Ramiro Bravo Morales, 22, was charged with being an accessory. Authorities say he also is from Mexico and had entered this country illegally about six months ago.
Ross, the man who called 911, was also charged with murder in El Dorado Superior Court after authorities say they discovered he had leased his land to the other two suspects to grow the marijuana but had not disclosed that to dispatchers or Ishmael after calling 911.
Instead, officials believe Ross called 911 because he was fearful the other men were going to harvest the 75 plants at the site and leave without paying him $3,000 they still owed for using his property.
All three men pleaded not guilty to the state charges last week, and all three also face drug and weapons charges filed separately by U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott’s office Friday.
Fourth man faces drug, weapons charges
Now, Scott’s office has added Lamas as a fourth conspirator in the operation, saying he came to authorities’ attention about the same morning of the shootout that killed Ishmael.
“Approximately five hours after the firefight at the Sand Ridge Road marijuana garden, the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office 911 dispatch received a 911 call from an individual who identified himself as ‘Jorge,’” the DEA affidavit says. “Jorge told the 911 operator that he only spoke Spanish.”
Within minutes, the dispatcher found a translator and called “Jorge” back, who told them that he was “at a marijuana ranch and thieves started shooting,” the affidavit says.
“As the 911 operator was asking Jorge for more information, he hung up,” the affidavit says. “Because Jorge could not identify the location of the marijuana ranch, the 911 operator was not sure if Jorge was referring to the earlier shooting at the Sand Ridge property or some other marijuana cultivation site.”
But the U.S. Marshals Service was able to track him down two days later in Yuba City, where they found Jorge Lamas with the same cell phone that had been used to make the 911 call.
Lamas told investigators that he was overseeing two pot grows, the one at the site of Ishmael’s slaying and a second on Citabria Lane in Georgetown, court papers say, and authorities believe a second firefight occurred there as thieves made off with 99 pot plants and left two behind. No one answered the phone Tuesday morning at a number registered to the Citabria Lane address.
The only weapon recovered so far was the handgun at the Sand Ridge property that officials believe killed Ishmael.
Lamas, who faces up to life in prison on the federal charges, made a brief court appearance Tuesday afternoon, but did not enter a plea. U.S. Magistrate Judge Edmund F. Brennan ordered him held in custody and set a preliminary hearing date for Nov. 12.
Ishmael, a four-year veteran of the sheriff’s office and married father of three, is scheduled to have his funeral next Tuesday at Bayside Church Adventure in Roseville.
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