Iowa arrest connected to Gustine homicide, sheriff says

A drug rip-off that led to a kidnapping, execution and the seizure of about 20 pounds of methamphetamine.

Those were just a few details released Friday by Merced County Sheriff's deputies in their investigation into last week's slaying of 34-year-old Cesar Gallegos outside Gustine. His body was found in an orchard near Highway 33 and Borba Road Oct. 6.

Sheriff Mark Pazin said at a news conference the investigation into Gallegos' killing led law enforcement to make several arrests in Iowa and Southern California.

Detectives believe Gallegos was murdered after he and at least three other suspects had ripped off a methamphetamine lab in north Merced County of about 20 pounds of meth, Pazin said.

A major break in the case happened after Gallegos' wife reported to law enforcement that gunmen had come to the couple's home and kidnapped him. Detectives determined Gallegos was killed in retaliation for stealing the meth. After learning of Gallegos' death, his cohorts in the theft fled to the Los Angeles area.

Merced County Sheriff's detectives learned one of Gallegos' alleged killers, 32-year-old Jose Ortiz, had fled to Iowa. Detectives notified Des Moines Police Department and Ortiz was taken into custody in Iowa on a homicide warrant Thursday afternoon.

In addition, on Tuesday sheriff's detectives from the Major Crimes Unit went to Hollywood and arrested Gallegos' cohorts: 23-year-old Arturo Plado, 27-year-old Epifanio Vargas and Damian Perez.

The arrests were made with assistance from the Los Angeles Interagency Metropolitan Police Apprehension Crime Task Force.

During the investigation, deputies seized 20 pounds of meth and two pounds of marijuana.

For more details, read Saturday's Merced Sun-Star.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or