Man pleads guilty to pot cultivation in national forest

Oscar Alfredo Ortega-Castañaza was paid $100 per day to water and trim marijuana plants in the federal forest

FRESNO, Calif — A 37-year-old man has pleaded guilty to illegally cultivating cannabis plants in the Twin Springs area of Sequoia National Forest, resulting in thousands of pounds of trash and equipment needing to be removed by helicopter.

Oscar Alfredo Ortega-Castañaza pleaded guilty on May 13 to conspiring to cultivate with intent to distribute 2,864 marijuana plants in the national forest, U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert announced. 

The grow site was discovered in early August 2019 during an aerial observation of the area conducted by Sean West and Sam Maldonado, Special Agents with the United States Forest Service. Later that month, the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office was contacted by the owners of a ranch adjacent to the grow site concerning a Trail-Cam photo of a man on the property half a mile from where the plants were found.

Law enforcement then began investigating the area and found the plants, irrigation equipment, two tents and a space that was being used as a kitchen. Ortega-Castañaza was soon found and apprehended near the grow site, along with a backpack containing a loaded revolver and a box of .38-caliber ammunition. A second suspect who was seen with him fled down the side of the mountain when law enforcement arrived. 

Ortega-Castañaza stated that he had been living at the site for 9 days and had 8 days of work left, according to court documents. He said he was being paid roughly $100 per day to water and trim the cannabis plants. When asked about the gun, he said that it was for protection against wildlife and anyone who may try to rob the site. The gun was in his hand as officers approached him, but once he realized it was law enforcement he threw it to the ground. 

The operation damaged the land and natural resources of the area, as vegetation was cut down and significant amounts of fertilizers and pesticides were used in order to plant and cultivate the cannabis. Thousands of pounds of trash, irrigation hoses, and camping equipment were found at the site that must be removed by helicopter. Ortega-Castañaza agreed to pay $7,819 in restitution to the U.S. Forest Service for the environmental damage.

Ortega-Castañaza is scheduled for sentencing on Oct. 28, 2022 before U.S. District Judge Jennifer L. Thurston. He faces a mandatory minimum statutory penalty of 10 years and a maximum penalty of life in prison, as well as a fine up to $10 million.

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