A drug rip-off that led to a kidnapping, execution and the seizure of about 20 pounds of meth.
Those were just a few details released Friday by Merced County sheriff's deputies in their investigation into last week's slaying of 34-year-old Cesar Gallegos outside Gustine. His body was found in an orchard near Highway 33 and Borba Road on Oct. 6.
Sheriff Mark Pazin said at a news conference the investigation into Gallegos' killing led law enforcement officials to make several arrests in Iowa and Southern California. "These persons associated with the drug underworld are ruthless," Pazin said. "Here is empirical evidence of what goes on in the day-to-day, seedy underbelly of the criminal element here, regarding methamphetamine production. And there's always someone who's going to pay the price."
Detectives believe Gallegos was killed execution-style in the orchard after he and at least three other suspects had ripped off a north Merced County methamphetamine lab of about 20 pounds of meth, Pazin said.
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A break in the case happened after detectives learned Gallegos' wife reported to the Gustine Police Department that gunmen had come to the couple's home around 7 a.m. Oct. 6 and kidnapped him. "Suffice to say, the individuals who had kidnapped Ortiz were holding him for ransom to get their dope back," Pazin said.
Detectives determined Gallegos was killed in retaliation for stealing the meth. After learning of Gallegos' death, his cohorts in the theft fled to the Los Angeles area.
Merced County sheriff's detectives learned one of Gallegos' alleged killers, 32-year-old Jose Ortiz, had fled to Iowa. Detectives notified the Des Moines Police Department, and Ortiz was taken into custody in Iowa on a homicide warrant Thursday afternoon. "We don't know if he had family there, or if it was just a safe harbor," Pazin said.
Pazin said Ortiz probably didn't act alone, and detectives are searching for other suspects in Gallegos' killing. He didn't elaborate on how Gallegos was executed.
In addition, on Tuesday sheriff's detectives from the Major Crimes Unit went to Hollywood and arrested Gallegos' cohorts: 23-year-old Arturo Plado, 27-year-old Epifanio Vargas and Damian Perez, 33.
The arrests were made with the help of the Los Angeles Interagency Metropolitan Police Apprehension Crime Task Force. The state's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement also assisted in the investigation.
During the investigation, deputies seized 20 pounds of meth in Hollywood and Merced County, which they say was stolen by Plado, Vargas and Perez from the north county lab, along with two pounds of marijuana. Those drugs had a street value of around $300,000, according to authorities.
Ortiz is expected to be sent back to Merced County for prosecution.
Officials didn't say whether the suspects are illegal immigrants.
A total of 24 homicides have been reported in Merced County this year. Of the 13 homicides reported in the sheriff's jurisdiction this year, Pazin said 12 have been solved.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.