|From left, Ryan Alan Balletto, 30, of Lakeport, Calif., and Patrick Steven Pearmain, 25, of Clearlake, Calif., are facing federal prosecution for conspiracy to manufacture and distribute over 1,000 plants of marijuana and using a minor in a drug operation. Lake County Jail photos.|
LAKE COUNTY, Calif. – Following a federal investigation that began in late 2012, on Monday federal charges were filed against two Lake County men for conspiracy to manufacture and distribute more than 1,000 plants of marijuana and using a 15-year-old girl in a drug operation, with allegations the men locked the girl in a metal box for several days.
Ryan Alan Balletto, 30, of Lakeport, and Patrick Steven Pearmain, 25, of Clearlake, are charged in a criminal complaint signed by Magistrate Judge Nandor J. Vadas and unsealed on Monday, according to US Attorney Melinda Haag's office.
Haag's said the Lake County Sheriff’s Office and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations, Contraband Smuggling Group, worked together on the case, leading to the discovery of a 1,300-plant marijuana cultivation operation and a host of firearms in Lake County.
Balletto and Pearmain made their initial appearance on the charges on Monday in front of Judge Vadas. A detention hearing is set for both defendants on Wednesday, July 24, at 1 p.m. In Eureka.
The complaint alleges that Balletto and Pearmain kept a 15-year-old runaway girl for weeks at an extensive marijuana grow site on 681 acres of land owned by Balletto in Lake County, and that they used her to process marijuana plants.
According to the complaint, Balletto and Pearmain allegedly subjected the teenager to sexual abuse during the time they held her, with the investigation revealing items used for sexual bondage and a metal toolbox that the girl told investigators she was kept in on two separate occasions.
In addition to the conspiracy and use of a minor charges, Balletto also is charged in the complaint with possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.
“Some in our community believe that marijuana grow operations are run by compassionate caregivers interested only in supplying medicine to the sick. Unfortunately, this case illustrates what we in law enforcement see – marijuana grow operations that include heavily-armed, violent individuals, motivated by profit, carrying out abuses of vulnerable victims,” said Haag.
The men – arrested this spring – previously had been facing drug and human trafficking charges in Lake County, but those cases were dismissed last Friday in preparation for the federal charges, as Lake County News has reported.
Lake County District Attorney Don Anderson said last week his office will continue its investigation into the human trafficking allegations relating to the minor girl in order to potentially file charges in the future.
He said his office has been working with the US Attorney's Office on the case, which he said originated with federal investigators.
A lengthy investigation
The Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency began investigating Balletto in December 2011 on suspicion of drug trafficking, according to case documents.
In August 2012, the Homeland Security Investigations Asset Identification and Removal Group identified six parcels of land Balletto had purchased in April 2011 and a parcel purchased in July 2010, with several of those pieces of land located in the Ogulin Canyon Road area, the documents state.
This past April 12, Lake County Sheriff's Det. Frank Walsh conducted a flyover of the properties and identified two greenhouses, with Walsh and a federal special agent preparing warrants to be served in May, according to the complaint.
On April 29, the Los Angeles Police Department requested the sheriff's office's help in the search for the missing girl, who they believed had been kidnapped by Balletto and transported to Lake County, where she was being held against her will on Balletto's property.
That same day, officials went to Balletto's home address in Lakeport and spoke with his girlfriend, Christa McConnell, asking her about the girl and Balletto. Court documents said she was reported to be uncooperative and said Balletto had not been home for days.
The following day, April 30, the 15-year-old girl placed two cell phone calls to the Lake County Sheriff's Central Dispatch, telling them she was “OK” and with someone named “Ryan” in Sacramento. Officials said detectives were able to track the calls, finding the girl in a West Sacramento hotel and taking her into protective custody that same night.
At that time they also arrested Pearmain, who had marijuana and prescription drugs in his possession. In the hotel room, federal officials said they found condoms and a pregnancy test.
During the service of search warrants at Balletto's property on May 1, the complaint said agents and officers allegedly discovered a cache of weapons at the grow site, most of which were loaded, including assault weapons, such as AR-15 style rifles with night vision scopes, and pistols.
Stored with the rifles, officers allegedly found seven fully loaded 30-round .223 caliber magazines, four fully loaded 20-round .223 caliber magazines, and a large cache of assorted ammunition, officials reported.
With the weapons, Haag's office said officers allegedly found ballistic face masks, a helmet, a flak jacket, an armored plate carrier, night vision devices and a gas mask.
A search of Balletto’s Lakeport residence allegedly uncovered even more weapons, including multiple sniper rifles, additional assault rifles, shotguns, pistols and ammunition, according to Haag.
Signs of bondage, abuse
In addition to marijuana and the weapons cache, the search of Balletto's property in Ogulin Canyon revealed “equipment consistent with sexual bondage and sadomasochism,” the criminal complaint stated. Among the items found were a homemade rack and a white towel with stains which tested positive for human blood, as well as metal and leather harness.
Investigators also found a metal tool box – measuring 4 feet long by 2 feet wide by 2 feet deep – that the complaint said “had been altered to imprison a human,” with air holes drilled into the lid and a blanket inside.
Anderson had told Lake County News in a previous interview that it's believed the men kept the 15-year-old girl in the box as punishment.
During subsequent interviews with investigators, the minor girl told them that she had been trimming marijuana for the men and that she had been kept in the toolbox on two different occasions for a total of three days. Balletto reportedly told her she was a “trooper” for not screaming while being held in the box.
The complaint said investigators found a poem by the girl in Balletto's trailer on the property describing being locked inside a box with holes in it.
She related to investigators that the marijuana grow was a “mission” and that Balletto and Pearmain locked her in the box to protect that mission and to teach her because “they had to prove a point.”
The girl said she had consensual sex with Pearmain but the sex with Balletto was not consensual and was “to help him out.” The complaint noted that, at age 15, she is not legally able to give consent to have sex with an adult.
There are concerns that the potential for more victims exists, according to Haag.
“In light of the details alleged in the complaint, we fear additional victims may have been subjected to similar treatment by the defendants, and we urge anyone with information about other such victims to come forward,” Haag said.
Haag's office said the penalties Balletto and Pearmain face for the drug conspiracy and use of a minor in a drug operation charges are a maximum of life in prison, with a mandatory minimum 10-year term, officials said.
In addition, the possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime carries a mandatory term of five years in prison, consecutive to any sentence imposed, according to federal prosecutors.
Email Elizabeth Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow her on Twitter, @ERLarson, or Lake County News, @LakeCoNews.