Man gets 4 years prison in $47.8 million pot bust

A 22-year-old Atwater man was sentenced to four years three months in federal prison Monday for conspiring to cultivate and distribute $47.8 million in marijuana.

Jose Miguel Lizarraga Lopez was sentenced as part of a plea agreement in Fresno federal court by U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii, according to Lauren Horwood, spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner.

Lopez and co-defendant Juvenal Paredes Sanchez, 36, were arrested Aug. 28, 2010, after agents with the Merced-Mariposa High Intensity Drug Task Force found about 47,800 pot plants in a cornfield in the 8000 block of Atwater Jordan Road.

Agents searched a 600-square-foot cinderblock building next to the eight-acre corn field, finding evidence of marijuana cultivation inside the building, according to Merced County sheriff's spokesman Deputy Tom MacKenzie.

In addition, marijuana was planted parallel with the corn, in between the individual stalks, so it couldn't be spotted from the air.

The plants ranged from small starter plants a few inches tall to plants that were several feet tall, with an average street value of $1,000 a plant when harvested at maturity.

Inside the building, agents found evidence of a makeshift camp where workers would stay while tending the garden.

During the bust, a pit bull-labrador mix dog was shot to death after it charged at a sheriff's sergeant.

Sanchez pleaded guilty April 11 and was sentenced to four years in prison.

Both men are illegal immigrants and are scheduled to be deported after serving their sentences, Horwood said.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Yasin Mohammad and Kathleen A. Servatius prosecuted the case.

Managing Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.