In a case that offers new details of tactics used by marijuana growers in Utah, a judge on Wednesday sentenced an Ephraim man to 30 months in prison.
Cesar Duran-Frias, 24, claimed he had nothing to do with cultivating marijuana until October when a man in a white pickup stopped him on a street in Ephraim. The driver asked Duran-Frias and his friend if they wanted a job picking seeds, according to court filings and attorneys on the case, and offered them $150 a day.
After buying some blankets for Duran-Frias and his friend, the pickup driver dropped off the pair on top of a Sanpete County mountain. Duran-Frias claimed the driver left and other people appeared and lead Duran-Frias and his friend to a campsite. They told the pair to sit, Duran-Frias and his lawyer said, brought them marijuana plants and told them to cut off the buds.
"He didn't know what he was going up there for," Duran-Frias' attorney, Ben Hamilton, said Wednesday in court, though Hamilton acknowledged when the marijuana arrived, Duran-Frias knew the job was illegal.
Hamilton said Duran-Frias was never allowed into the field where the marijuana was growing, but with no way to go down the mountain, Duran-Frias cut the buds as he was told.
He worked perhaps five hours when deer hunters stumbled upon the field. As many as seven other workers, whom Duran-Frias did not know, ran and escaped, according to his account. A Sanpete County sheriff's deputy caught Duran-Frias and his friend as they tried running down the mountain.
Law enforcement eventually found 25,000 marijuana plants in that field and have found more than 100,000 plants in Utah since the start of 2008 as growers from Mexican organizations have moved to the state.
Federal agents have described Utah's marijuana growers as recruits from Mexico smuggled into the United States by drug cartels and then taken to remote public lands to tend sophisticated but clandestine fields.
Duran-Frias' account is the first suggesting drug growers also are recruiting people already in Utah. Duran-Frias is in the United States illegally, but Hamilton said his family has been in Sanpete County for years and worked building and ranching jobs.
Duran-Frias in April pleaded guilty to one felony count of marijuana manufacturing. The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Lunnen, on Wednesday said it did not make sense Duran-Frias would not have asked what he was supposed to pick on the mountain. He wanted Stewart to impose a sentence of 46 to 57 months. Hamilton asked for an 18-month sentence.
Stewart acknowledged Duran-Frias had mitigating circumstances but said he would have remained cutting the buds if the field had not been discovered. Stewart also said he wanted a "deterring effect" for marijuana growers.
Duran-Frias agreed to be deported to Mexico when his prison term ends. The case against his friend is pending.
By Nate Carlisle, The Salt Lake Tribune, Updated: 07/02/2009 05:52:27 AM MD