MARQUETTE - Just prior to the start of his jury trial Monday, a Mexican man pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Marquette to attempting to manufacture more than 1, 000 marijuana plants in Iron County in 2010.
Federal drug agents have said the case involved nearly 5,000 plants and was the largest marijuana grow operation they've ever found in the Upper Peninsula.
Sergio Plascencia-Cruz, 32, of Yualica, Mexico was charged with two counts under an indictment, the first was for conspiracy to manufacture 1,000 or more marijuana plants; the second was for attempting to manufacture more than 1,000 marijuana plants and aiding and abetting the attempted manufacture of 1,000 or more marijuana plants.
Some of the more than 4,700 marijuana plants confiscated by police from a grow operation in Iron County in 2010. (U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency/Upper Peninsula Substance Enforcement Team photo)
On the first day of what was expected to be a three-day trial, just prior to opening attorney statements, Cruz pleaded guilty to the second count and is scheduled to be sentenced at 9 a.m. May 24. The charge is punishable by 10 years to life in prison and a fine of up to $10 million.
U.S. Assistant Attorney Maarten Vermaat said government attorneys agreed to drop the remaining charge at sentencing.
In the late summer and fall of 2010, police and federal agents uncovered an elaborate grow operation, traced back from a traffic stop.
A government trial brief in court records outlined facts from the investigation.
On May 25, 2010, Michigan State Police troopers pulled over a sport utility vehicle driven by Cruz. The vehicle was heading west along U.S. 2 in Dickinson County. While the troopers talked with Cruz, one of the officers spotted a handgun in the vehicle and Cruz was arrested for possession of a concealed weapon, the brief said.
Cruz gave police permission to search the vehicle. They found a wide variety of personal property including fertilizer, piping and fittings, two small bags of corn seed, waterproof binoculars, a "Barbie" compact disc player and two coolers packed with ice and food, including 16 cartons of eggs and four packages of meat, the brief said.
Two global positioning system units were also found, one of which contained waypoints situated in a zig-zag pattern. One of the troopers recognized the location as being in the Amasa area of Iron County. He wrote down the coordinates for some of the points, according to the brief.
Cruz was interviewed at the Dickinson County Jail. He told police he was from Green Bay and was driving to visit a friend who lived nearby. He was going to help the friend plant corn.
He said he bought the unregistered gun about a month prior for $150, it didn't have a case and that he had two boxes of .40 caliber ammunition for it. Cruz said he did mechanic work but didn't have a job, the brief said.
Police suspected Cruz was involved in marijuana production and they informed detectives from the Upper Peninsula Substance Enforcement Team.
Cruz was released from custody on May 26, 2010. He was then arrested on a federal charge of being an illegal alien in possession of a firearm on June 23, 2010. He remained in custody thereafter and pleaded guilty to that charge. Cruz was sentenced Dec. 16, 2010 to serve 16 months.
In June 2010, UPSET detectives and special agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration flew over the area denoted by the GPS coodinates. No marijuana plants were found at that time.
They returned in late August and found more than 4,700 plants, many with what appeared to be fertilizer around their bases, the brief said.
Police recovered equipment including machetes, hoses and a trail camera. Because of the extensive operation, police theorized a camp must be located nearby used by the growers. In September 2010, agents found a deserted camp with 325-gallon water holding tanks and numerous items, including generators, pumps and hoses that matched some found in Cruz's vehicle, the brief said.
After a search warrant was executed in October, police also found a manual for the trail camera and the binoculars, a guitar and the"Barbie" CD player from Cruz's vehicle. The camp buildings had many beds and an extensive food supply, indicating it had housed a significant number of people, the brief said.
A small corn plot was found in front of the camp buildings.
Police traced a business card Cruz had to an agricultural supply business in Green Bay where Cruz previously worked and had purchased 17 50-pound bags of fertilizer at $83 each and had sought to buy more than 750 pounds, but was refused.
Investigators found the camp was purchased by a Green Bay man for $45,000 in April 2010. Some of the checks used to purchase the camp were allegedly obtained by two individuals related to Cruz, according to the brief.
Further investigation linked the Iron County camp to another property in Wisconsin the Green Bay man told police Cruz asked him to buy in 2009 in return for several thousand dollars.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.