‘Losing a brother, a son’
Deputies believed an El Dorado County man was being robbed. His marijuana partners say they thought they were—and that’s why they started shooting.
A deputy is dead after a firefight at an illegal marijuana grow in Somerset last week—and authorities blame the property owner who called 911.
El Dorado County Sheriff John D’Agostini told reporters last Thursday that he expects Christopher Garry Ross to face a manslaughter charge for the death of his deputy, Brian Ishmael, shot in the chest when he and a fellow deputy from San Joaquin County responded to Ross’ report that robbers were in his outdoor marijuana grow.
What Ross didn’t tell deputies was that he had been in cahoots for months with the people on his land, and now feared they might welch on their deal.
“Had he been truthful with our deputies and the 911 dispatcher, this tragic event would not have occurred,” D’Agostini said. “His actions directly related to this incident.”
According to a written affidavit by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force officer Dave Stevenson, Ross allegedly agreed in July to lease a tree-shrouded patch of his remote property to the weed growers in exchange for $13,000. He received most of his take in cash and a Jeep Cherokee, but was still owed $3,000 as harvest time approached, the affidavit states.
Two Mexican nationals, identified as Juan Carlos Vasquez and Ramiro Bravo Morales, were allegedly camping near the grow for weeks and removing tops by mid-October. Concerned that his associates weren’t going to cover the outstanding balance, Ross called 911 after midnight on Oct. 23 to report that he was being robbed.
Identifying himself as a farmer who grows marijuana, Ross told the dispatcher that five people were raiding his garden, the affidavit states. He made no mention of his business arrangement or that he knew at least one of the men to be armed.
D’Agostini said that Ishmael and his ride-along partner were the first to arrive at the home, set deep down a dusty access road and nearly camouflaged by thick tree canopies, recent Google satellite imagery shows. After speaking to Ross, the deputies went around back to the grow, announced themselves and asked whoever was in the high green to show themselves.
“And at that time they were immediately confronted with gunfire,” D’Agostini said.
Ishmael was struck twice—once in the foot and once above his bulletproof vest in the chest. The sheriff said his deputy died within minutes, but not before he and his ride-along partner, who was hit in the upper thigh, returned fire.
Multiple law enforcement agencies swarmed the area. Vasquez and Morales were captured while fleeing. According to the DEA affidavit, both men admitted they were hired to cultivate and protect a grow that numbered approximately marijuana 75 plants, and that they started firing when they saw bright lights coming toward them. Vasquez, who was wounded while firing an estimated 15 rounds from a handgun, told authorities that he thought the lights “belonged to people coming to rob him,” the affidavit states.
On Friday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged Vasquez, Morales and Ross with drug trafficking and firearms offenses.
D’Agostini noted the possibility of a federal prosecution during last Thursday’s press conference, his second in two days. He said losing an officer was like “losing a brother, a son.”
While recreational marijuana is legal in California, the black market thrives because of demand outside the golden state.
“There’s a lot of violence that surrounds these gardens,” D’Agostini said. “To say this is just medicine and does no harm and that the California laws that have been passed are going to be able to adequately prepare us … is a fallacy.”