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STAR Team finds drugs, loaded gunsS

When sheriff's deputies enter a house searching for drugs, they're never sure what they will find. On Wednesday, four officers encountered more than they expected during a raid on a Walnut Avenue home in Winton.

Three people ultimately were arrested on drug and weapons charges and a sizable quantity of contraband was seized. The home at 6445 Walnut Ave. is near a new elementary school.

Deputy Kevin Blake, a member of the Sheriff's Tactical and Reconnaissance Team, reported finding a Romanian-built AK-47 assault rifle with about 100 rounds of ammunition, a 9-millimeter handgun, a stolen 12-gauge shotgun, four ammunition clips, scales and six bags of processed marijuana.

Deputy Dustin Witt, also a STAR team member, said he is happy to be a step ahead of criminals before the weapons are used on somebody else. Blake said it's disturbing to go into these situations and not be sure what they are up against.

"I'm satisfied pulling them (weapons) off the streets so they won't be used against us," Blake said. "Two weeks ago deputies responded to a loud music call at that residence. This (AK-47) is the type of weapon we occasionally run across."

Ramon Valencia, 22, and his brother, Jesus, 23, were arrested without incident by Blake, Witt, Sgt. Steve Sziraki and state parole agent Craig Donahoe during a high-risk vehicle stop in the driveway of the residence. Blake reported the 9-millimeter handgun was loaded and cocked, located under the center console and cupholder in the Valencia vehicle.

Blake stressed the STAR team's success illustrates the need to bolster the current unit and add a second nighttime STAR team, which was proposed to Merced County supervisors last week by Sheriff Mark Pazin. He said the current STAR team, which responds to serious crimes on short notice, is stretched thin.

About 6½ pounds of processed marijuana, valued at approximately $20,000, was found in six plastic bags in the home, along with some pendulum scales. The AK-47 was found on the bed in a rear bedroom, concealed under a blanket. The pump-action shotgun, reported stolen in January 1996 in Fremont, was found under the box springs of the same bed. The assault rifle had a "banana clip" with more than 100 rounds of armor-piercing ammunition.

The Valencias and Rosanna Cervantes, 25, of Winton were arrested on charges of possession of marijuana for sale, possession of an assault rifle, receiving stolen property, and possession of a loaded firearm while selling narcotics. Jesus and Ramon Valencia also were charged with possession of a concealed firearm, Blake said.

The Valencias were booked into Merced County Jail where they remained Wednesday night in lieu of $90,750 bail each; Cervantes also remained jailed in lieu of $85,750 bail, according to a correctional official.

Blake said one of the bags of marijuana was in plain sight in one of the bedrooms. STAR team members had received complaints about drug dealing at the residence, near Winfield School on Chestnut Avenue.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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