The family that grew ganja together is now the family that pleaded guilty together. In the spring of last year, federal agents and Miami-Dade narcotics detectives dismantled a clan of marijuana growers that distributed thousands of pounds of high-grade weed from South Florida to New York City. Gilberto Santiesteban Jr., his dad, and his three brothers operated 21 grow houses for nearly seven years. Heck, even their significant others participated in the green conspiracy. It all unraveled when the Santiestebans decided to kidnap and murder a man who stole close to 50 pounds of their weed.
On April 29, Gilberto Jr. and his brother Darvis pleaded guilty to kidnapping and marijuana-trafficking charges after their father and two other siblings cut deals with federal prosecutors.
Gilberto Jr. was the manager, director, and leader of the Santiesteban marijuana empire.
The 34-year-old pot farmer was responsible for locating, designing, installing, implementing, and caring for at least 21 houses used to cultivate marijuana, according to William Athas, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case. According to court documents, Santiesteban Jr. began his criminal enterprise in 2004; it increased in scope and sophistication over the years.
Athas said the government intended to prove the breadth of the Santiesteban marijuana enterprise through the testimony of cooperating co-conspirators and from physical evidence seized by various law enforcement agencies during the course of the conspiracy, which ran approximately from 2004 through 2012. The Santestibans cultivated more than 1,000 marijuana plants that were then cut and packaged into marketable marijuana that was sold in South Florida as well as transported to and sold in New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere.
The government had an expert witness who was planning to testify that bank deposits for Santiesteban and his live-in paramour, Estrella Mijares, into their combined accounts for the period of July 2007 through July 2009 totaled $151,399, and of that amount $130,932 were cash deposits. During that time, Santiesteban was not employed and he did not file any tax returns from 2005 through 2012.
The Santiesteban marijuana business began unraveling June 25, 2009, when Derrick Santiesteban and his wife, Yadira Santiesteban, were the victims of a home-invasion robbery at their South Miami-Dade house. The robbers, disguised as policemen, stole approximately 40 to 50 pounds of processed hydroponic marijuana that belonged to the Santiestebans and that was about to be transported to New York City for distribution.
After the robbery, Derrick summoned Gilberto, his other brothers, and other accomplices to his house to view a video of the home invasion that had been filmed by a security camera to see if they recognized any of the robbers. The assembled group discussed capturing one of the home invaders to coerce the thieves into returning the stolen marijuana. Through their contacts with other drug traffickers in Miami, the Santiestebans learned the identity of one of the home invaders, Fidel Ruz Moreno.
On June 28, 2009, the Santiestebans located Moreno and kidnapped him. They hijacked Moreno's van, pushing Moreno into the cargo hold, where he was shot and severely beaten by Santiesteban accomplice Norge Manduley.
Since February, the Santiestebans and their cohorts have been cutting deals with prosecutors to serve less time. The first brother to plead guilty was Derrick on February 15, along with his wife Yadira. Five defendants, including Alexander Santiesteban, also pleaded guilty in late February. Four more Santiesteban associates copped guilty pleas in March. On April 12, the dad, Gilberto Sr., pleaded guilty. His namesake and another brother, Darvis, were the last holdouts.
The only defendant still fighting the charges is Mandulay, the alleged triggerman.
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Gilberto's sentencing hearing is scheduled for July 18.
Follow Francisco Alvarado on Twitter: @thefrankness.