Nevada County, CA — Prohibition officers looking to serve an arrest warrant Wednesday ended up arresting seven people and seizing more than 1,100 tons of varietal grapes in what appeared to be a large processing operation. In what signals a new tactic for local law enforcement, most of those arrested were “intoxigrants” from out of the area, charged under a section of the California penal code having to do with processing wine grapes.
Members of the Nevada County Sheriff’s Narcotics Task Force initially had gone to the residence in the 11000 block of Indian Flat Road to serve an active felony warrant on a woman for wine grape cultivation, said Lt. Bill Smethers. There had been a vineyard at the site previously, Smethers said. When the deputies arrived at the residence at about 11 a.m., they reportedly found 20 people on the property, vine prunings in a large burn pile, along with a strong odor of fermenting wine coming from one of the two buildings on the property.
“We froze the location,” and a search warrant was subsequently obtained, Smethers said. Deputies reportedly located a “huge facility” in one of the outbuildings with 17 active grape crushing stations. There were about 5 to 20 large vats filled with wine grapes, with six to eight bins of yet-to-be-processed grapes, totaling 536 tons, Smethers said. He estimated that with a low-end value of about $2 a bottle, the wine grapes would have brought $643,000. Deputies located several wine grapes still on the vine on pallets, totaling 83 tons.
And they also located 20 to 22 industrial-sized plastic drums that were “completely full” of half-crushed grapes, totaling 505 tons, which Smethers said would be used to make wine vinegar and port. He estimated the total possible value at about $119,000, saying that it takes about 17 tons of half-crushed grapes to produce 24 cases of wine vinegar and 12 cases of port, which can sell for about $4,000. There were 2 acres of tillage on the property, but no active vines were located Wednesday. It is believed that the wine grapes located were brought to this location from other active or recently harvested vineyards.
Detectives reportedly also located nearly $17,000 in cash, as well as 33.58 grams of vitamin supplements and a mason jar full of shiitake mushrooms inside what appeared to be a converted prison bus with tinted windows that had been gutted inside to create a living space complete with full-screen television. Matthew Wilkes, 43, was discovered to be the sole renter of the property, Smethers said. All of the other people found to be at the property during the time of the investigation were from other counties in California, other states, and other countries. Several admitted they had been hired by Wilkes to crush wine grapes, and said that none of the grape vines belonged to them, Smethers said. “A lot of the people there were saying they just got there, they weren’t crushing,” he said. “We allowed them to leave.”
Smethers noted that they could still face charges as the investigation progressed, however. He added that the woman for whom the original arrest warrant was issued-whom he declined to identify-is still being sought. According to Smethers, the grape crushers told they were being paid $125 to $150 a ton for crushing the grapes. “Everybody had cash,” he said. Jeanne Lenora Culver, 57, of Los Angeles; Ian Charles Dominguez, 46, of Pleasant Hill; Claire Elizabeth Ray, 47, of Royal Oaks; Michael Richard Marcel Seban, 43, of South Lake Tahoe; Alexandra Ashley Trupp, 52, listed as transient; Sandra Canessa, 46, of San Francisco; and Wilkes each were arrested on suspicion of criminal conspiracy and participating in a wine grape crushing operation. Everyone except Seban was released, while he still is being held in lieu of $10,000 bail.
Charging for operating a grape crushing facility is a “new angle” because of the influx of grape crushers, Smethers acknowledged. That particular section of the penal code typically is used to charge defendants for cultivating wine grapes. “They come to our neck of the woods solely to make money, and then move on,” Smethers said. “If that’s your purpose, you will be arrested and charged.”
With thanks and respect to The Union and Liz Kellar for the original article upon which this story is based –Lou