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Gabino Lopez Santiago refused to join a marijuana-growing venture in the moments before he ran from a group of men and was shot and killed on a rural ranch in the hills edging Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley.

He had been partying with his brother-in-law who later claimed that he, too, had feared for his life when he was tasked with dumping Santiago's body 10 miles away.

The new allegations surrounding the Oct. 16 shooting were revealed in court documents and interviews, illuminating an argument fueled by alcohol and centered around the lucrative business of growing pot in gardens secreted away on sprawling properties.

But it also shows the real threat of violence in Wine Country, where the same soil that produces some of the world's most prized vineyards provides a fertile ground for marijuana, now fueled by confusing laws, regulations and enforcement.

As prosecutors prepare to try three men linked to Santiago's death, including his brother-in-law Ramon Velasco Lopez, the debate is growing over how to stem marijuana-related violence in Wine Country.

In Sonoma County, politicians want to provide for the distribution of medical marijuana but want stricter rules for dispensaries and producers and safety in both urban and rural areas.

Along Highway 101, law enforcement authorities target vehicles delivering marijuana, legally produced or not, from northern counties to the Bay Area.

Federal authorities, emboldened by federal laws prohibiting the use and sale of marijuana, ignore state medical marijuana laws and raid North Coast pot growers.

"How do you go back?" Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy John Blenker said of the door to legal marijuana production and sale cracked open by medicinal cannabis laws. "There's no going back."

Blenker patrols about 475 square miles of northern Sonoma County that span from the coast to the Geysers. The area is mostly agriculture and undeveloped forest of the coastal mountain range.

He's made it a priority to snoop out illicit pot growers along the roads he patrols in his district, which includes much of Sonoma County's prized vineyards and forests, rugged lands that have long attracted clandestine marijuana growers.

In October, he pulled over a man in a vehicle for a traffic violation on a remote road in Franz Valley. He noticed more than a dozen boxes of turkey bags — the kind often used to package processed marijuana — on the passenger seat as he checked the man's vehicle registration.

"I said, &‘Do you bake turkeys?' He didn't know what I was talking about,'" Blenker said.

On a recent day as Blenker patrolled West Dry Creek Road the vines had turned a kaleidoscope of green, gold and red in rows. Blenker powered down the window of his cruiser as he navigated a sharp turn onto Chemise Road, a private dirt road that leads to the driveway where Santiago was shot.

"Get a whiff of that," he said.

The unmistakable scent of marijuana flooded the vehicle and was gone moments later, replaced by the sharp and unmistakable odor of newly crushed grapes.

Both harvests leave clues for deputies to puzzle: increased traffic, vehicles parked off the side of the road, supplies like water bottles tucked behind bushes.

"With crush going on, how can you tell what's narcotic activity from grape activity?" Blenker said.

Santiago had been tending olive trees in the hours before he was killed at a ranch off Chemise Road, Sonoma County Sheriff's Sgt. Carlos Basurto said.

How to report suspected price gouging in Sonoma County

Email the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office through the website, da.sonoma-county.org, or call 707-565-2311.


Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

After work, he and a coworker headed down the dirt driveway of a Chemise Road property near West Dry Creek Road to drink with Lopez, his 28-year-old brother-in-law.

They joined Sidonio Cruz-Santos, a 35-year-old Santa Rosa man who detectives believe was there with his partner Agustin Zepeda-Onofre, 23, of Windsor at a marijuana garden planted down a trail about 60 yards from Chemise Road.

Santiago and his coworker both apparently declined to take part in Cruz-Santos' marijuana venture.

"The use of alcohol and possibly some other drug got things going," Basurto said. "We believe Sidonio was trying to force these guys to help him with the marijuana grow. They refused."

Sometime around 1 a.m. Santiago decided to flee: "The victim saw his chance to run away," Basurto said. "Then they shot him." The co-worker was not harmed and at some point left the area.

Santiago's brother-in-law claimed he feared for his life so followed directives and dumped Santiago's body about 10 miles down a nearby road, Sonoma County sheriff's officials said.

After he tossed the body on the shoulder of a two-lane road lined by wineries and ranches, he turned the Nissan pickup toward the Healdsburg Police Department and reported the killing.

Lopez told detectives: two man had fired at Santiago, one was named Daniel and the second was wearing a hooded sweat shirt, ball cap and sunglasses, he said, according to court documents.

Detectives arrived under the cover of darkness and found a bloody crime scene on the dirt driveway a short distance from Chemise Road, Basurto said. But there was no body.

"You can't see, there are no lights, and you don't know if your suspects were still there," Basurto said.

Soon after they arrived, Zepeda-Onofre drove up to the deputies in a Nissan pickup. He had blood on his clothes, according to a search warrant affidavit. He told detectives he'd just killed a pig. When they asked to see the pig he said, "I want a lawyer," the documents said.

Detectives investigating a nearby warehouse found Cruz-Santos sleeping in a parked Jeep, officials said. He matched Lopez' description of the man in the hooded sweat shirt, according to the affidavit.

Detectives followed a foot trail off the driveway and found a marijuana garden where about 30 marijuana plants were hanging to dry and covered in tarps.

A medical marijuana license was posted at the garden under the name of a woman who lives at Crus-Santos' apartment complex on Airport Boulevard near Fulton Road in Santa Rosa, Basurto said.

"She was the one they were supposedly growing marijuana for, but it was well over the limit," Basurto said. "It was an illegal grow."

The woman told detectives she got the license and gave it to Cruz-Santos, Basurto said. The woman was not charged in connection with the case.

Investigators believe both Cruz-Santos and Zepeda-Onofre shot at Santiago, striking him in the head and chest. They've pled not guilty to murder and marijuana cultivation charges in court, as has Lopez.

"I'm not at all sure at this point that the shooting itself had anything at all to do with marijuana. It may have. But I'm not convinced of that at this point," said Steve Weiss, attorney for Lopez.

The smell of marijuana is not uncommon down Chemise Road, a private dirt lane maintained by neighbors. Residents have stumbled on clandestine marijuana gardens over the years, just as many landowners have experienced in untamed pockets of the county, they said. But such outright violence was unexpected, said Russ Messing, 69.

"It shocked a lot of us. We pretty much all feel very safe up there," Messing said.

Messing has lived on about 200 acres of wooded rolling hills for 33 years. He grows olives for olive oil and runs a psychiatry practice in Santa Rosa.

"A couple of years ago we found an encampment up there," he said. "We took the sleeping bags and the gear and we threw it in the dump."

The sun, good soil and access to water attract both grape and marijuana growers to the area.

"There has always been marijuana around vineyards in Sonoma County," Sheriff's Narcotics Sgt. Steve Gossett said.

Vineyard operators are well aware that their workers might come into contact with illicit drug projects.

La Prenda Vineyard Management owner Ned Hill oversees 420 acres of vineyards in the southern end of the Sonoma Valley. Hill said they have plans in place to avoid running into illicit pot growers.

"We think about that a lot," Hill said. "We're out a lot at night alone."

He said he's never had a confrontation on the vineyards he manages. But he's heard stories of encounters, including one from a picking crew who showed up at night to start working and were run off by people believed to be growing marijuana in the area.

"Luckily, those people tending those gardens don't want to be found," Hill said.

Most homicides reported to have taken place at illicit marijuana gardens in recent years stem from clashes between law enforcement and suspected cultivators.

Agents killed five suspected growers during a seven week period of 2010 in Mendocino, Lake, Napa and Santa Clara counties. The confrontations erupted when law enforcement agents entered marijuana gardens to eradicate the plants and officials reported the men brandished firearms.

However in Napa County, a man involved in a marijuana garden outside Rutherford is suspected of killing two Santa Rosa men hired to tend the plants. Their bodies were found July 1, and the suspect remains at large.

Don Wallace, who with his wife Kim Wallace runs Dry Creek Vineyards, said he hikes the borders of his property most weekends to look for any signs of trespassers.

Two years ago he found 40 marijuana plants growing near the creek and "it scared the heck out of me," Wallace said.

He said landowners fear of being held responsible for problems caused by trespassers, including pot growers.

"We're just farmers," Wallace said. "We wish it would go away."

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