Crime - Sacto 911

Sutter County tomato grower pleads guilty to leasing greenhouses for pot

In the rural Sutter County town of Rio Oso, Thomas and David Jopson were fourth-generation farmers and sons of the local fire chief. They were also legends in the heirloom tomato business, nationally renowned for their greenhouse-grown produce.

On Tuesday, Thomas Jopson, 64, pleaded guilty in federal court to a reduced felony charge stemming from leasing out the family greenhouses for growing marijuana. His brother David Jopson, 63, is expected to plead guilty on Feb. 18, according to statements by attorneys in court.

The former rice farmers were hailed in 2008 by American Vegetable Grower magazine for boldly moving into the greenhouse tomato business – a move that Thomas Jopson asserted was “not for the faint of heart.”

But three years later, as the market for pricey heirloom tomatoes took a hit, the Jopsons agreed to lease their greenhouses in an alleged business partnership with an Oakland medical marijuana entrepreneur whose first name stood for “yes and no” and last name was “maybe” spelled backward.

The entrepreneur, Yan Ebyam, faces federal trial March 3 on marijuana cultivation and conspiracy charges after the 2011 seizure of 2,168 marijuana plants at the Jopson family greenhouses and another 3,305 pot plants at a wholesale florist in Sacramento County.

Nathan Hoffman, a Los Angeles lawyer representing marijuana dispensaries and an alleged business partner of Ebyam, is due in Sacramento federal court April 1 to face money-laundering and conspiracy charges in connection with an alleged scheme to set up multiple growing operations to supply the medical marijuana market.

As a result of his guilty plea to a reduced charge of conspiracy to manufacture at least 50 marijuana plants, Thomas Jopson could get a significant reduction in his sentence. Due to the number of plants seized, he faced a minimum of 10 years in federal prison and a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

His attorney, Bill Portanova, said Jopson could still face eight years in prison. But Portanova said the reduced charge, from original counts of conspiracy and manufacturing at least 1,000 marijuana plants, allows a judge the discretion to impose a far lighter penalty.

As U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez ordered Thomas Jopson to appear for sentencing June 24, Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Pickles said prosecutors would seek a sentence on “the low end” of federal sentencing guidelines.

Portanova said prosecutors’ willingness to accept Jopson’s guilty plea to the reduced charge “reflects that they have an understanding of his actual role” in the marijuana operation.

He said the Jopsons had stopped growing tomatoes and put their greenhouses up for lease when “realtors brought in potential renters who were marijuana people with a lawyer (Hoffman) who said it was legal.”

Hoffman and Ebyam had been partners in a company, Marjyn Investments, that ran a medical marijuana cultivation warehouse in Oakland. The venture attracted national attention in 2010 when it signed a labor contract with the Teamsters union for its marijuana growers.

At the time, Oakland was considering granting permits for four industrial-scale marijuana farms to supply the California medical cannabis market. That prompted the San Francisco U.S. Attorney, Melinda Haag, to warn the city of potential civil and criminal prosecutions if the operations opened.

Seventeen days after Haag’s warning, according to court records, Hoffman sent an email to Thomas Jopson. He mentioned Oakland’s troubles with the federal government, but said a plan to convert the family greenhouses “to a model facility producing only ‘pharmaceutical grade’ cannabis has great merit.”

In a follow-up email, Hoffman instructed the tomato grower to become a medical marijuana patient and sign up as a member of a Garden Grove dispensary, New Age Canna. The email suggested the Jopsons’ greenhouses could then produce six plants for every member of the dispensary under California law.

While California’s nebulous marijuana laws allow nonprofit groups of medical users to collectively cultivate marijuana, prosecutors asserted that the Jopson ranch cultivation scheme was a blatant moneymaking operation violating both state and federal law.

The case broke open after a Sutter County sheriff’s deputy visited the Jopson family ranch on April 20, 2011. Thomas Jopson allowed the deputy to view the greenhouses. According to court documents, Jopson later asked the deputy for stepped up patrols because Ebyam, who had moved on to another growing operation in Sacramento County, was making him nervous.

Two months later, a regional drug task force raided the Jopson farm and soon afterward turned over the case to U.S. prosecutors.

Thomas Jopson declined comment on his guilty plea Tuesday. Outside the courtroom, he hugged his mother. “Well, it’s almost over,” he said.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee