Three plead guilty in failed Petaluma pot robbery scheme

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Three of eight suspects have pleaded guilty to their roles in a series of home invasions last year that terrorized a Petaluma neighborhood and that law enforcement officials described as a failed scheme to steal California marijuana to resell on the East Coast.

The would-be robbers ended up threatening, tying up and beating some of the people they encountered at two homes but found no pot, officials said.

The intrusions came five weeks after a similar botched pair of home invasions involving a different, yet connected group of suspects from the East Coast. Those suspects, still awaiting trial in Sonoma County, also demanded marijuana or cash from residents who had none, and in one invasion the suspects shot and killed a Santa Rosa-area resident in his home.

Authorities have said the suspects in both cases share connections, but officials have declined to elaborate. One suspect was from Santa Rosa, five were from Richmond, Virginia, three came from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the remaining two were residents of Mississippi and New York.

The cases reflect the high- dollar black-market value of California marijuana in states where it’s still banned.

In the Petaluma case, Jaray Simmons, 29, of Winston-Salem and Nakia Jones, 23, and Siddiq Abdullah, 22, both of Richmond, were among a group that “agreed to target houses in Northern California they believed contained bulk quantities of marijuana and the cash proceeds of marijuana sales,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a statement Tuesday announcing the guilty pleas.

Federal prosecutors didn’t identify who directed the operation, noting that Simmons, Jones and Abdullah and their co-defendants agreed with an unidentified person or people to participate in the crimes.

“The eight co-defendants agreed to conduct armed home-invasion robberies of the targeted homes and to distribute for a profit on the East Coast the marijuana they were able to steal,” prosecutors said.

Their co-defendants, whose federal cases are ongoing, include: Chrisshawn Beal, 21, Ledarrell Javon Crockett, 29, and Jade Lafay Johnson, 20, all of Winston-Salem; and Melvin Corbin, 20, and Romello Shamar Jones, 21, both of Richmond. Court records show most are scheduled to enter guilty pleas later this month.

The eight suspects traveled to California by car and by plane, ultimately convening March 12, 2018, in Novato. Members of the group had obtained weapons and “purchased supplies including jackets, duffel bags, scissors, a vacuum sealer and vacuum bags,” federal prosecutors said. They drove to Petaluma in two vehicles, parking at an antique shop on Bodega Avenue and kicking down a fence to get to the homes on Eugenia Drive.

At the first house, a suspect kicked open the front door and six others stormed inside, forcing a man and woman into a bathroom and binding them with duct tape, according to the plea agreement summarized by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. At least one of the suspects threatened to kill the two residents if they didn’t cooperate, according to the summary.

The man was struck “in an effort to get him to disclose the location of marijuana and money,” the prosecutors’ summary stated. “The victims explained they did not have any marijuana and that the defendants were in the wrong house.”

The suspects left and walked to a nearby house, separating into two smaller groups and getting in through front and side doors, according to the plea agreement. A suspect grabbed a phone from the woman inside and “threw it on the floor,” and she was subsequently “dragged by the hair and locked inside a closet,” the summary states.

Two suspects waiting outside confronted a neighbor, bringing him inside the second house. There they tied him up with an extension cord and “repeatedly struck him while asking where the marijuana and money was located,” the summary states.

“The male victim repeated that the defendants were in the wrong house,” federal prosecutors said.

Law enforcement officials later said it appeared the suspects failed to reach their intended target — another property where marijuana had been grown in the past, although there was no cannabis there at the time of the home invasions.

The suspects fled when they heard police approaching, piling into a rented white minivan and two other vehicles and heading south on Highway 101, leading to a dramatic pursuit into Marin County, according to local law enforcement reports.

Ultimately, Crockett was caught trying to escape in an Uber; Beal, Corbin and Simmons were apprehended in a Novato Costco parking lot; and Nakia Jones, Romello Jones and Abdullah were intercepted by police before they got through a security line at San Francisco International Airport, authorities said.

The remaining suspect, Johnson, was arrested three days later in North Carolina.

Simmons, Jones and Abdullah all pleaded guilty Tuesday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco to three federal crimes related to their conspiracy to commit robbery in an interstate drug scheme and using a firearm, charges that could send them to federal prison for life, prosecutors said.

Even as the federal case comes to a close, the suspects were originally charged with felonies in Sonoma County.

Sonoma County Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell said his office will make a determination whether to press forward with those charges after the federal sentencing.

Sentencing hearings are scheduled for July 31 for Jones, Aug. 7 for Simmons and Aug. 14 for Abdullah at the federal courthouse in San Francisco.

Authorities haven’t publicly identified who orchestrated the earlier Feb. 8 home invasions by a group of suspects who stormed houses on Melcon Lane and Fulton Road outside Santa Rosa city limits. The intruders shot and killed Jose Luis Torres, 54, who ran a local appliance repair business. A resident of another home was wounded in gunfire.

Five suspects in that case are scheduled to appear in Sonoma County Superior Court later this month for a preliminary hearing, where a judge will decide whether there is sufficient evidence to go to trial. They are charged with Torres’ killing.

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Brandon Cutting, who oversees violent crime investigations, said he couldn’t discuss details in the case as it proceeds to trial. Cutting said the county so far this year hasn’t experienced the same level of violent home-invasion cases as in 2018.

In addition to the Petaluma and Santa Rosa cases, authorities investigated similar invasions by marijuana- seeking suspects in Sebastopol and Cloverdale.

“The peace-minded, weed-smoking guy isn’t going to go rip someone off, but the criminal is going to see it as an opportunity,” Cutting said. “We make it available in Sonoma County. Marijuana on the East Coast is worth a significant amount.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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