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New Times / News

The following article was posted on July 31st, 2013, in the New Times - Volume 28, Issue 1 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 28, Issue 1

Montaña de Oro panga suspects all plead guilty

BY MATT FOUNTAIN

The 14 defendants in an unusual criminal case stemming from a massive bust of drug smugglers on a local stretch of coastline in June have all pleaded guilty in San Luis Obispo Superior Court, according to the District Attorney’s Office.

In the early morning hours of May 29, SLO County Sheriff’s deputies spotted suspicious vehicles traveling in Montaña de Oro State Park, and later observed large packages and people being loaded into the vehicles before taking off.

Officers initiated traffic stops when the vehicles reached Los Osos Valley Road, according to the Sheriff’s Department. They discovered 53 bales—or roughly 1,900 pounds—of packaged marijuana. About that same time, State Parks officials discovered a deserted 35-foot-long panga resting on a remote area of shoreline near the park.

Since then, the defendants have one by one pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to transport marijuana, and are set to serve out their time in SLO County Jail. The case was a local rarity in that it went before the county’s grand jury, which in turn issued the criminal indictments, due to the number of defendants involved, according to the DA’s Office.

The defendants are Francisco Diaz-Garcia, Jose Mendoza, Simon Escobar-Quiroz, Mario Baguada, Waldo Rodriguez, Carlos Espinoza, Eric Carillo, David Tenas, Hector Augustine, Juan Cruz, Valter Augustin, Jesus Gonzalez, Eugenio Bonilla, and Jessica Garcia.

Garcia was the first defendant to plead guilty in June, and a majority of the defendants are set for sentencing on Aug. 19 and 26.

Only Espinoza pleaded guilty to one count of transporting marijuana.

The pleas carry with them a two- to five-year sentence.

As of press time, it wasn’t clear how the guilty became involved in the panga operation, or whether some of them were recruited locally for the job. Sheriff’s Department Spokesman Tony Cipolla previously confirmed to New Times, however, that three of the arrested—including one 17-year-old—are U.S. citizens. The rest are from Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala, Cipolla said.

He didn’t say whether the group’s operation was thought to be connected to Mexican drug cartels.

The incident marks the fifth time—that authorities know of—a panga has landed in SLO County since May 2012.