Valley News -

Trio charged with operating cannabis outlets advertised as houses of worship

 

Last updated 4/19/2019 at 9:33am



RIVERSIDE - One of three men accused of illegally operating marijuana dispensaries in Hemet and Jurupa Valley under the guise of religious activity pleaded not guilty on Thursday, April 18 to more than two dozen felony and misdemeanor charges.

Jose Serrano, 25, was arrested Tuesday, the same day a criminal complaint was filed against him, his brother, 23-year-old Stephen Serrano, and their associate, 39-year-old Cesar Ramirez.

Charges against the trio include possession of cannabis for sale, money laundering, maintaining a property for the purpose of distributing controlled substances and selling cannabis without a permit.

Jose Serrano was arraigned before Riverside County Superior Court Judge Eric Keen, who scheduled a felony settlement conference for April 25 at the Riverside Hall of Justice and set the defendant's bail at $1.4 million.

Serrano is being held at Banning's Smith Correctional Facility. His brother and Ramirez remain at large, with arrest warrants outstanding.

Last September, members of the county's Cannabis Regulation Task Force conducted a sweep at three properties managed by the trio identified as part of the Vault Church at 5024 Etiwanda Ave. and 5298 Mission Blvd., both in Jurupa Valley, as well as 291 N. Yale St. in Hemet.

Between 200 and 300 cannabis plants in various stages of growth were seized, along with 100 pounds of harvested weed, investigators alleged. A cash horde approaching six figures also was seized, according to the task force.

After the properties were padlocked, the men allegedly opened another purported church dispensary known as Corona Holy Crossing in the city of Corona, which has since been shuttered, and then allegedly temporarily reopened one of the Jurupa Valley distribution points, according to the District Attorney's Office.

The defendants last year publicly acknowledged using cannabis products, both smokable and edible, in meditative ceremonies. They denied that they operated for the exclusive purpose of selling and distributing pot.

None of the dispensaries were licensed. Both the cities of Hemet and Jurupa Valley at the time had blanket bans on any type of commercial marijuana activity.

Voters in Jurupa Valley, however, approved changing the law in November to permit a limited number of storefront dispensaries to open. Hemet's ban remains in place.

The county Board of Supervisors last October approved an ordinance that will permit 50 commercial marijuana developers, as well as 19 retailers, to operate in unincorporated communities. The vetting process is underway on more than 250 entities that have applied for permits.

Any selected party will have to be individually approved by the board in public session. Hearings are expected to begin this summer.

 

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