SAN FRANCISCO August 2, 2016 – Melinda Van Horne was sentenced today to 12 months and a day in prison for damaging national conservation land through her marijuana cultivation operation, announced United States Attorney Brian J. Stretch.
Van Horne, 43, of Whitethorn, pleaded guilty on March 23, 2016, to depredation against the property of the United States. According to the plea agreement, Van Horne admitted to causing over $100,000 in environmental damage to federal lands in the King Range National Conservation Area through her marijuana cultivation operation. In October 2007, Van Horne purchased a house next to Paradise Ridge in Humboldt County, Calif. Paradise Ridge is part of a congressionally designated National Conservation Area administered by the Bureau of Land Management for the conservation and protection of public lands for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations. In 2008, Van Horne made a proposal to the government offering to trade portions of her private property in exchange for the federal conservation land. The Bureau of Land Management rejected the trade based on the national conservation status of the land. Van Horne nonetheless decided to proceed with her marijuana cultivation operation, causing substantial damage to the protected area.
“Marijuana cultivation operations on public lands present an ongoing threat to these important national resources,” said United States Attorney Brian J. Stretch. “This office will protect these vital wilderness areas from the marijuana growers who endanger public safety and leave environmental destruction in their wake.”
With Van Horne’s consent and knowledge, and later at her direction, vegetation was stripped from portions of the federally managed conservation area, land was excavated and graded, and eleven greenhouses and other structures were constructed on federal lands. The work was done in order to grow marijuana plants for sale. Van Horne also used facilities that diverted water from the nearby Bridge Creek to irrigate the marijuana plants. The bulldozing and excavation of federal land caused that land to become unstable and to erode into two rivers that provide crucial spawning and rearing habitats for threatened and federally protected salmon and steelhead.
In September 2013, agents executing warrants to search the property found 1,654 marijuana plants growing on federal land and in the garage of the adjoining house. The agents also found over 17 kilograms of marijuana at another location where Van Horne was residing. Van Horne admitted growing marijuana with at least five other people and admitted she was one of the organizers of the operation.
Van Horne was indicted by a federal Grand Jury on November 17, 2015. She was charged with conspiracy to distribute marijuana, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846; possession with intent to distribute 1,000 or more marijuana plants, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(A)(vii); possession with intent to distribute marijuana, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(C); maintaining a place for manufacturing marijuana, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 856(a); and depredation against property of the United States, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1361. Under the plea agreement, Van Horne pleaded guilty to the depredation against property of the United States.
The sentence was handed down by the Honorable Charles R. Breyer, U.S. District Judge, following a guilty plea to depredation against property of the United States, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1361. In addition to the prison term, Judge Breyer also sentenced the defendant to perform 300 hours of community service, ordered the defendant to pay restitution, and ordered her to serve a three-year period of supervised release. Bureau of Land Management engineers estimate the cost to repair the damage at $107,754, which Van Horne has agreed to pay as restitution in connection with her guilty plea. The defendant will begin serving the sentence on November 4, 2016.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rita F. Lin is prosecuting the case with the assistance of Theresa Benitez, Rawaty Yim, and Marina Ponomarchuk. The prosecution is the result of an investigation by the Bureau of Land Management and Drug Enforcement Administration.