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SAN FRANCISCO – Authorities say they arrested two women and are searching for two men who are all accused of playing a role in holding four brothers captive at an illegal marijuana farm in Northern California and forcing them to work there.
The brothers told police they ran away in July from the secluded pot-growing operation in the small Sierra Nevada foothills town of West Point after overhearing they would be killed once all the marijuana was harvested, Calaveras County Sheriff's Capt. Jim Macedo said Wednesday.
Two other men, including the brothers' nephew, are being sought by authorities from the small, impoverished county undergoing a dramatic transformation because of marijuana cultivation.
The traditionally politically conservative board of supervisors on May 10 made it legal for farmers to grow commercial amounts of medicinal marijuana. The legislation was seen as a way to help the county recover from a devastating wildfire that charred 26 square miles, killing two people and destroying 860 homes in September 2015. The county itself raised $3 million after receiving 700 applications for farming permits, which cost $5,000 each.
The cultivation law was passed over the objection of the sheriff and district attorney, who said the remote county was already overrun with too many illicit pot farms and warned of an influx of unsavory outsiders.
Authorities said they destroyed 23,000 plants worth up to $60 million found on July 28 at the forested compound where the brothers worked. The two women were arrested Sept. 14 in Modesto and charged with human trafficking, kidnapping, battery with serious bodily injury, terrorist threats and drug charges.
"We've seen an increase in violence, theft and greed related to marijuana trafficking, and this appears to be an organized, violent group," Macedo said.
Neither Guadalupe Sierra Arellano, 43, nor Medarda Urbieta, 44, entered pleas during a court appearance in San Andreas, California. Macedo said the two women are suspected of living in the United States without proper documentation.
Macedo said investigators are looking into whether suspects have ties to any Mexican drug cartels. Authorities said they found a religious shrine popular among Mexican drug traffickers and cartels during a search of a Modesto home in connection with the case.
Brian Chavez-Ochoa, a lawyer representing Arellano, denied his client had any connections to cartels and said it appears the site was maintained and cultivated by locals.
David Singer, a lawyer representing Urbieta, didn't return a call. Both women remain in jail on $800,000 bail each.
Macedo said the victims, who were not identified, had bruises and black eyes after they escaped the marijuana farm and made it to a nearby home to ask for help. One of the brothers suffered a broken jaw and had to be hospitalized, court records show.
The case began in February when Arellano hired two of the brothers to help clean a Modesto home, court records show. Instead, the two brothers said they were taken against their will to the marijuana farm and forced to live and work there at gunpoint. They told police that Arellano threatened harm to their family if they escaped or called police.
Nine days later, investigators say Arellano lured the two other brothers to the farm under the guise of visiting the brothers held captive. Once there, all four brothers were forced to live and cultivate. They say they were beaten on three occasions, the last time three days before their escape.
The men worked the marijuana operation on several acres of land up a winding road with armed men standing guard over a house where the women lived. The men themselves slept in squalid and ramshackle conditions in a hut-like structure, Macedo said.