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Two men charged with conspiracy and abuse of a minor in large-scale marijuana grow operation

SAN FRANCISCO – Two Lake County men were charged Monday with conspiring to manufacture and distribute marijuana and with using a minor to process plants at a large-scale grow operation on property owned by one of the men.

Ryan Balletto, 30, and Patrick Pearmain, 25, were also charged with possession of a firearm in support of their drug trafficking activities. The case, which is the result of a far-reaching probe by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Lake County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO), led to the discovery of a 1,300-plant marijuana cultivation operation and a host of firearms at the remote site in Lake County.

Court documents allege Balletto and Pearmain held a 15-year-old runaway for weeks at the grow site where they forced her to process marijuana plants in support of their trafficking operation. According to the criminal complaint filed in the case, Balletto and Pearmain subjected the victim to sexual abuse during the time they held her captive.

“Some in our community believe that marijuana grow operations are run by compassionate caregivers interested only in supplying medicine to the sick,” said U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag. “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. In light of the details alleged in the complaint, we fear additional victims may have been subjected to similar treatment by the defendants, and we urge anyone with information about other such victims to come forward. My office is dedicated to keeping the community safe, and we will continue to work with our local, state and federal law enforcement partners to help bring to justice those who victimize others, particularly those who are most vulnerable.”

During the investigation, HSI special agents and LCSO officers discovered a cache of weapons at the location – most of which were loaded – including assault weapons with night vision scopes and pistols. Stored with the rifles, investigators found nearly a dozen fully loaded magazines and a large cache of assorted ammunition. Discovered along with the weapons were ballistic face masks, a helmet, a flak jacket, night vision devices and a gas mask. A search of Balletto’s residence uncovered more weapons, including multiple sniper and assault rifles, shotguns, pistols and ammunition.

“The criminal groups involved in growing and trafficking marijuana have repeatedly shown they have no qualms about using violence and intimidation against those who get in their way – in this case the alleged victim was only 15,” said Tatum King, acting special agent in charge of HSI San Francisco. “By pooling our resources, authorities and expertise, we’ve succeeded in dismantling a drug operation suspected of funneling significant quantities of marijuana into northern California and onto our streets. This case shows yet again why federal and state collaboration is crucial to combatting these kinds of public safety threats and ensuring that those involved are brought to justice.”

Balletto and Pearmain face a maximum penalty of life in prison for the drug conspiracy and use of a minor in a drug operation, with a mandatory minimum 10-year term. In addition, the possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime carries a mandatory term of five years in prison, consecutive to any sentence imposed.

“This case was originated by federal investigators,” said Lake County District Attorney Don Anderson. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office has the expertise and resources to assure the defendants are adequately punished for their crimes. We have been working with the U.S. Attorney’s office on this matter and look forward to our continuing relationship with them.”

The defendants made their initial court appearance Monday and will return to court in Eureka for a detention hearing July 24.

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