Oakland pot bust may send 2 to jail

July 29, 2004

Robert Gammon, Tri-Valley Herald

OAKLAND -- Two of the five Bay Area residents arrested for growing more than 2,000 marijuana plants they claim were for medicinal use pleaded not guilty Thursday to federal drug charges that could keep them behind bars for the rest of their lives.

Jesse Nieblas, 31, of Alameda and Jacek Mroz, 26, of San Leandro were indicted last week on three drug charges each in connection with the June 30 marijuana bust in a West Oakland warehouse. Both face mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years to life in federal prison.

Also arrested during the pot bust, believed to the largest ever in Oakland, were Heleno Araujo, 32, of Concord and Celeste Angello, 28, of Santa Clara.

Last week, authorities also arrested Mario Pacetti, 33, of Alameda for his alleged involvement in the case. A federal grand jury handed up an indictment of Mroz, Nieblas and Pacetti on July 23. Pacetti is scheduled to appear in federal court Aug. 2.

The pot bust was made by the California Highway Patrol and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Araujo and Angello appeared on Thursday, along with Nieblas and Mroz, in Oakland federal court in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Wayne D. Brazil, but they did not enter pleas. They have not been indicted. Their arraignment was put off until Aug. 18.

CHP officers said they discovered the marijuana operation following a routine traffic stop on a city street. But Mroz's Oakland-based attorney, Bill Panzer, alleged Thursday the CHP knew the growing operation involved medical marijuana, yet targeted the warehouse anyway as part of a larger campaign to ignore Proposition 215.

the 1996 voter-approved state initiative that legalized pot for medical uses.

'The CHP decided on their own they did not like medical marijuana,' Panzer said. 'What we have is police who believe they're above the law.'

The CHP has maintained there is no evidence the West Oakland plants were headed for sick or dying patients, despite such assertions made by Oakland medical marijuana advocates.

In response to Panzer's claim the CHP is purposely ignoring Proposition 215, Sacramento CHP spokesman Tom Marshall said: 'We categorically deny that allegation. What else would you expect from defense lawyers?'

Although medical marijuana is legal under California law, the Bush administration and Attorney General John Ashcroft have continued to prosecute medical marijuana cases in federal court.

However, the prosecutors in this case could be undermined by a conflicting account of the pot bust provided by the DEA. Originally, Special Agent Adam Zirkelbach said in a sworn statement the bust occurred just after the CHP conducted a 'canine training' outside the warehouse at 2638 Market St., according to court documents.

CHP officials immediately denied there was a canine training, saying there was a miscommunication with the DEA.

Zirkelbach then filed a new sworn affidavit with the court, with no mention of the training. Instead, he echoed the CHP's earlier version of events that it had received complaints about the warehouse from neighbors, and then during a surveillance operation of the warehouse, pulled over a pickup leaving the building.

CHP said the pickup, driven by Nieblas, made an illegal lane change. A search of the pickup revealed more than 500 marijuana plants, leading the officers back to the warehouse where they found the growing operation, Zirkelbach said in the new statement.

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