Lake County men charged with using teenage girl in marijuana growing operation

Published: Friday, Jul. 26, 2013 - 4:37 pm

Two Lake County residents have been charged in federal case involving a large-scale marijuana growing operations in which a 15-year-old girl allegedly was held against her will and used to process marijuana plants.

According to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, the girl, a runaway from Los Angeles, was sexually abused and confined at times in a metal toolbox.

Ryan Balletto and Partick Pearmain were charged Monday with conspiracy to manufacture and distribute more than 1,000 marijuana plants and with using a minor in a drug operation, according to a federal Department of Justice news release. Balletto also is charged in the complaint with possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.

According to the complaint, in December 2011, the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, began an investigation into suspected narcotics trafficking by Balletto and others.

On April 12 of this year, a Lake County sheriff's detective conducted a flyover of the property Balletto owned in the Ogulin Canyon area outside of Clear Lake and identified two greenhouses on the property that were believed to be full of marijuana plants, according to the complaint.

As authorities were preparing to apply for and execute a search warrant, they received an urgent request from the Los Angeles Police Department for help regarding the missing teenage girl who they believed was being against held her will on Balletto's Lake County property.

Deputies went to Balletto's residence, where they spoke with a woman who said she was Balletto's girlfriend and asked her about the missing juvenile and Balletto, but the deputies reported that the woman was uncooperative.

The next morning, a female called the Lake County Sheriff's Office's dispatch center, identified herself as the juvenile and told the dispatcher that she was OK. She then made a second call to the dispatch center and said she was with someone named "Ryan" in Sacramento.

Authorities determined that the call was made from a cell phone and tracked the signal to Sacramento. Later that evening, West Sacramento police officers found the 15-year-old girl at a hotel in West Sacramento and took her into custody.

On May 1, a team of state and federal officers and Lake County sheriff's deputies searched Balletto's property, which included approximately 680 acres of rugged terrain and dense foliage. They found two large greenhouses and a trailer, according to the complaint, and discovered 1,300 marijuana plants

Agents also found a cache of weapons, most of them loaded, according to the complaint. They included assault weapons, such as AR-15-style rifles with night vision scopes and pistols. They also reported finding ballistic face masks, a helmet, a flak jacket, an armored plate carrier and gas masks.

Inside the trailer on the site, they found equipment consistent with sexual bondage and sadomasochism, according the complaint. Outside the trailer, they discovered a metal toolbox approximately 4 feet long, 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep, that allegedly had been altered to imprison a human. The complaint states that air holes had been drilled into the lid and a blanket left inside.

"Some in our community believe that marijuana grow operations are run by compassionate caregivers interested only in supplying medicine to the sick," U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag said in a written statement. "Unfortunately, this case illustrates what we in law enforcement see -- marijuana grow operations that include heavily armed, violent individuals, motivated by profit, carrying out abuses of vulnerable victims."

Haag said that given the details alleged in the complaint, authorities fear there may be additional victims and they urge anyone with information about such victims to come forward.

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Read more articles by Cathy Locke

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