East Coast men among four arrested after Santa Rosa marijuana deal goes bad

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New York men who traveled to Sonoma County for a marijuana deal were in custody Wednesday after Tuesday night’s sale turned into an attempted robbery with gunfire in a southwest Santa Rosa neighborhood, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said.

Deputies late Tuesday night arrested three men from New York and a Santa Rosa man, who was hosting the drug deal at his Todd Road home, Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum said.

This appears to be another in a series of violent crime investigations involving East Coast suspects who come to Sonoma County for cheaper cannabis. Recent cases differed in that they involved violent home-invasion robberies — at least seven of them as of June 2018. However, those took place in the same southwest Santa Rosa area, as well as in the area southwest of Sebastopol and Fulton. Also, county code enforcement officials in 2017 had ordered the removal of marijuana plants growing at this Todd Road home.

Crum said this time, East Coast residents flew into the Bay Area Saturday, rented an Infiniti SUV and headed for Sonoma County. The alleged plan was to meet at the home, buy marijuana and take it back to New York.

At some point during Tuesday’s cannabis deal around 7:30 p.m., at least two men got into the vehicle and sped away with the pot, Crum said. At least one of the two men still at the home fired a gun at the fleeing vehicle three times, hitting it once. The SUV crashed into a ditch, and the occupants ran.

Deputies and CHP officers found a silver SUV in a ditch with one bullet hole. Callers also had reported seeing people run from the vehicle, and a search of the area turned up the two men in a nearby field.

At the Santa Rosa house, deputies found and arrested resident Gerardo Valencia, 50. Suspect Noah Zayas, 22, was hiding on the property in a second residence. He wouldn’t come out for the law enforcement officers, so a police dog was sent in, officials said. The dog found and bit him while he was being taken into custody.

Detectives and the sheriff’s SWAT team also responded for investigation and a search of the property.

The suspects gave contradicting explanations about what happened but deputies determined Welington Polanco, 22, of the Bronx, and Carlos Penzo, 32, of Yonkers, had been in the vehicle with 14 pounds of marijuana.

Deputies found the cannabis and a lot of cash still inside the SUV. Crum wouldn’t disclose the amount of money but said the cash was in a suitcase.

Deputies arrested all four men on suspicion of transporting marijuana for sale and conspiracy. Zayas, also of the Bronx, faces a possible additional charge for resisting arrest. Bail for each was set at $30,000.

In September 2017, county code enforcement officials found 30 cannabis plants growing at the 552 Todd Road home, west of Highway 101, where Tuesday’s botched pot deal occurred, said Maggie Fleming, a spokeswoman for Permit Sonoma. The plants were removed and three months later code enforcement officials closed the case and had no further complaints regarding the property, Fleming said.

Law enforcement officials drew a line between this incident and the earlier pot-related home-invasion robberies.

“This one was a little bit different. This wasn’t an intent to do a home-invasion robbery. It was intent to do a drug deal and for whatever reason, it went bad,” Crum said. “They didn’t go armed and masked, tying up people like we’ve seen in the past.”

Deputies have been called to this Todd Road house about a dozen times since 2003. The calls — most of them several years ago — ranged from reports involving a missing person, to warrant services to a burglary, Crum said.

Several vehicles and an ATV sat in front of the property Wednesday. A trailer-style home with several crumbling smaller wooden structures sat further back from the road. No one answered the door at the home when a reporter knocked.

Lauren Roy, who lives on the 500 block of Todd Road, said she didn’t hear anything Tuesday night until police arrived. After that, authorities confined her and other neighbors on the block to their homes for several hours. She said usually it’s a quiet neighborhood where most neighbors know each other and look out for each other.

“If something happens, there’s a phone tree that we all call each other,” Roy said. “We’ve had a few incidents in the last year, that’s for sure. But ... I’m happy here.”

Another neighbor, who asked not to be named, said crime in the area has increased since recreational marijuana was legalized in 2018 in California. He said there are a number of marijuana growers in the area and he complained of weak enforcement against illegal pot operations.

“There’s money in it, everybody’s into this thing,” he said. “I voted for it; I thought it was a lot of good tax revenue, but it’s a lot more trouble than it’s worth.”

Detectives still are investigating Tuesday’s pot deal that went awry and the subsequent shooting. Authorities asked anyone with information about the incident to contact detectives at 707‑565‑2185.

Staff Writer Julie Johnson contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. Staff Writer Andrew Beale is at 707-521-5205.

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