Wendy Del Rosa, one of two warring siblings claiming to lead a tiny Indian band just south of the Oregon border, began urgently writing to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento in early May.
The Alturas Rancheria – totaling three members or nine, depending on which faction one believes – had not been content with the earnings from its humble wood-plank gambling house, the Desert Rose Casino. It had pursued various ill-fated ventures, including payday lending and manufacturing cigarettes.
Now, Del Rosa warned in a series of letters to authorities, the tribe was converting a cavernous, tented event center on the reservation into a huge facility for growing marijuana.
“The tribe is acting as a beard for private operators who are attempting to use the medical marijuana law of this state and tribal sovereignty for massive personal profit,” Del Rosa wrote Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Ferrari in a letter dated May 27.
On July 8, federal and state agents and the Modoc County Sheriff’s Department raided vast marijuana cultivation operations at the Alturas Rancheria and on the neighboring land of a larger sister tribe, the Pit River Tribe. The enforcement actions, which so far have not resulted in criminal charges, revealed an audacious effort to capitalize on the California marijuana market.
In a remote northern region where the county seat, Alturas, lacks a single traffic light, the scale of the operation suggested its investors held exuberant expectations about their ability to grow marijuana without legal repercussions and distribute it in the state that boasts America’s most lucrative cannabis economy.
A federal search warrant affidavit said the tribal pot-growing ventures were “designed” by a powerful tribal law firm in Sacramento and financed by the wealthy chief executive officer of a major Canadian cigarette manufacturer.
Authorities seized 12,000 plants and 100 pounds of pot at the two tribal locations. They also discovered 40 newly constructed greenhouses at the Pit River Tribe’s XL Ranch near Highway 395 and the banks of the Pit River.
Even longtime advocates for marijuana legalization described the Alturas and Pit River operations as an overreach – based on an aggressive interpretation of a 2014 Justice Department memo that said sovereign Indian nations could sanction cultivation and use of marijuana on tribal lands. The scope of the operation also went far beyond cultivation restrictions being debated in the Legislature to regulate California’s existing medical marijuana industry, as well as limits contemplated by those pushing for legalization in 2016.
“This is overreach by promoters that are jumping the gun,” said Dale Gieringer, California director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a group partnering in efforts to legalize marijuana beyond medical use in 2016. “They don’t understand California law, and they are coming in to try to establish grows that go far beyond anything legally permitted in California.”
According to a July 7 affidavit by Charles Turner, a special agent for drug enforcement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the growing had already started in March, when a tribal delegation met with Modoc County Sheriff Mike Poindexter to fill him in on the operation.
The lawyer representing the project was John M. Peebles, a founding partner of Fredericks Peebles & Morgan, a Sacramento law firm specializing in tribal economic development. Peebles met the Modoc County sheriff with a delegation that included Alturas Rancheria chairman Phillip Del Rosa and vice-chair Darren Rose.
Phillip Del Rosa is the brother of Wendy Del Rosa. Both claim to be the rightful chair of the tribe, and they’ve been dueling it out in courtrooms for years.