14 suspects arraigned in panga boat bust at Montaña de Oro

clambert@thetribunenews.comJune 13, 2013 

Fourteen people who allegedly tried to smuggle $1.3 million worth of marijuana in a panga boat found off Montaña de Oro State Park in May were arraigned Wednesday on four felony counts.

Thirteen of the suspects entered not guilty pleas in San Luis Obispo Superior Court; the 14th, Jessica Garcia, entered a no-contest plea to conspiracy to transport marijuana and will be sentenced to felony probation on July 22, according to the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office.

The rest will appear in court again on July 1, with a jury trial set to start Aug. 6.

A day earlier, a county grand jury indicted the suspects on charges of conspiracy, possession of marijuana for sale, transportation of marijuana, and employment of a minor to sell or carry marijuana, court documents show.

The 35-foot-long panga boat was discovered May 29 after sheriff’s deputies noticed suspicious activity around the park. It was the fifth such boat found on local beaches since May 2012, when the first was discovered.

Over the past few years, similar boats have increasingly been used to transport people and drugs from Mexico to the United States.

On May 29, authorities seized 53 bales of marijuana and arrested 15 people, including a juvenile. Officials with the county District Attorney’s Office said they could not comment on the juvenile’s case.

Three of the suspects are Americans; the others are from Mexico or Central America.

The adult defendants are Jessica Garcia; Francisco Diaz Garcia; Jose Maria Mendoza; Simon Escobar Quiroz; Mario Baguada; Waldo Hernandez Rodriguez; Carlos Felipe Espinoza; Eric Arce Carrillo; David Abraham Tenas; Hector Augustine; Juan Carlos Cruz; Valter Manuel Agustin; Jesus Antonio Lomero Gonzalez; and Eugenio F. Flores Bonilla.

According to the grand jury indictment, on May 29, Escobar Quiroz drove a white Ford pickup into the state park, while Felipe Espinoza drove a white cargo van containing marijuana on Los Osos Valley Road.

Seven of the suspects off-loaded the marijuana from the panga boat, while five others left the state park in a vehicle containing a Taurus 9 mm handgun, walkie-talkies, two GPS units, a satellite phone and several cell phones, according to the indictment.

One of the suspects, Mendoza, has a prior record, the indictment shows. He was convicted in Southern California of exhibiting a firearm and possessing cocaine base for sale in 1998; for auto theft in 2001; possession of drugs in jail or prison in 2006; and possession of a controlled substance in 2008.

Gallery: Click here to see photos of the panga boat at Montaña de Oro and the 14 suspects »

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