The three suspects held in connection with the shooting death of El Dorado County sheriff’s Deputy Brian Ishmael were hit simultaneously Friday with state and federal charges as prosecutors launched dual efforts to send the men to prison.
The alleged gunman, Juan Carlos Vasquez Orozco, was charged with murder, assault with a deadly weapon and other counts in El Dorado Superior Court, while his alleged accomplice, Ramiro Bravo Morales, was charged with being an accessory.
A third man, Christopher Ross, who called 911 early Wednesday to report thieves were stealing his marijuana plants, was also charged with murder and manslaughter after sheriff’s officials said his call was a ruse. Authorities initially had arrested Ross only on the manslaughter charge, but added the murder count Friday.
Officials believe Ross had a financial arrangement with the other two men and called authorities to the scene because he believed they were trying to harvest 75 marijuana plants at Ross’ home without paying him what he was owed.
All three men appeared in El Dorado Superior Court and entered not guilty pleas, and are scheduled to return to court Dec. 17.
The suspects initially had been booked into the jail in Placerville, but are now being held in the Sacramento County Jail, online records show.
It is not unusual for suspects in a deputy slaying to be moved to a jail outside the jurisdiction where the officer worked. Five years ago, after Luis Bracamontes killed deputies in Sacramento and Placer counties, he was held in the El Dorado County Jail until he was convicted.
“Our charges are not related to what (federal prosecutors) would file,” District Attorney Vern Pierson said, adding that those charges will focus on marijuana violations.
“It’s our assessment that this was not a grow in compliance with local or state ordinances,” he said.
The federal charges filed in Sacramento allege conspiracy to manufacture at least 50 marijuana plants, manufacturing at least 50 plants and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug offense.
All three men were named in those counts in criminal complaints – charges that could net each of them at least 20 years in federal prison.
“Multiple federal law enforcement agencies have been assisting the El Dorado Sheriff’s Office in this investigation since early Wednesday morning,” U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott said after his office filed its charges. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office has brought these federal charges in full cooperation and consultation with the El Dorado District Attorney’s Office.”
Alleged pot farm ran for months
Documents filed with the criminal complaints provide the most detailed look yet at what led to the shootout that killed Ishmael and wounded an off-duty San Joaquin County sheriff’s deputy who was riding with him.
The conspiracy allegedly began July 1, when Ross, 47, entered into an agreement with a man he knew as “Jaime” to let him and his associates grow marijuana behind Ross’ home on Sand Ridge Road, according to an affidavit by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Task Force Officer Dave Stevenson.
“Jaime” agreed to pay Ross $13,000 to grow the marijuana at his home, and gave him $2,000 in cash and a Jeep Cherokee valued at $8,000, Stevenson wrote.
The deal called for Ross to be paid the balance of the $3,000 he was owed at the end of the harvest, Stevenson wrote.
Vasquez, a 20-year-old Mexican citizen who is known as “Paco,” moved into a tent near the pot grow in September and was in charge of tending the plants and providing security, the affidavit says.
“In early October, Ross saw Vasquez in the marijuana garden in possession of a firearm and became aware that Vasquez fired two rounds from the firearm while in the marijuana garden,” Stevenson wrote.
By mid-October, as the plants were ready for harvest, Ross began to worry that he was not going to get the $3,000 he was owed, and “noticed that some of the marijuana tops had already been removed,” the affidavit says.
On Sunday, Morales, a 22-year-old Mexican citizen, showed up to help with the harvest and began living near the garden, the affidavit says.
Finally, at 12:25 a.m. on Wednesday, Ross called 911 to report what he called a “robbery,” the affidavit says.
“I am a farmer...,” Ross said, according to the document. “I grow marijuana.”
He added that five people were “in my grow site” with flashlights taking his marijuana.
“At no point did Ross tell the 911 operator that he knew that two people were living in the grow and that he had a business agreement with them,” the affidavit says. “At no point did Ross tell the 911 operator that the people living in the grow were armed.”
About 45 minutes later, Ishmael arrived and Ross called 911 again to report that deputies were on scene, the affidavit says, adding that Ross said someone had tried breaking into his home and that he heard “probably like 50 shots” fired.
El Dorado County Sheriff John D‘Agostini said Thursday that Ishmael and his ride-along passenger showed up completely unaware that Ross knew the men. The deputies went to the grow site and identified themselves and ordered anyone there to come out, the sheriff said.
Instead, he said, Vasquez immediately opened fire, killing Ishmael with wounds to his chest above his ballistic vest and a wound to his foot. The other deputy also was wounded, and Vasquez was hit as the deputies returned fire.
The affidavit says both Vasquez and Morales were caught trying to flee the garden, and that Morales had hidden the firearm – a Smith & Wesson 9 mm handgun – in dense brush with four rounds still in it.
Vasquez told authorities that when he saw lights approaching the grow site that he fired “at least 15 rounds during the gun fight.”
“Vasquez said that (he) believed the lights belonged to people coming to rob him,” the affidavit says.