A 56-year-old man who transported more than $230,000 worth of cocaine and fentanyl into Riverside County pleaded guilty Friday to transportation of drugs for sale and other charges and was immediately sentenced to 11 years felony probation.
Jose Isabel Ramirez admitted the two transportation counts, along with two sentence-enhancing allegations of possessing more than one kilogram of cocaine, under a plea agreement with the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office. In exchange for his admissions, prosecutors dropped two related felony charges.
Superior Court Judge Paul Dickerson at the Southwest Justice Center in Murrieta certified the terms of the plea deal and imposed the sentence stipulated by the prosecution and defense. In addition to the extended term of mandatory supervision, the judge ordered Ramirez to enroll in drug rehabilitation classes and maintain gainful employment for the duration of the probationary period.
The defendant was arrested by U.S. Border Patrol agents during a traffic stop on Interstate 15 in Temecula on Oct. 9, 2019.
According to U.S. Border Patrol Agent Theron Francisco, agents spotted Ramirez’s 2009 Ford Escape on northbound I-15, heading into Temecula, and stopped him that afternoon based on suspicions of illegal activity.
While questioning Ramirez, the patrolmen noticed unusual patterns in the rear seat head supports, prompting a search of the defendant’s compact SUV, Francisco said. He said that metal boxes were discovered in the head supports, and stuffed inside the boxes were a dozen plastic-wrapped packages.
“Nine of the packages contained fentanyl and weighed 22 pounds, which is enough doses to kill more than 5 million people,” the agent said. “The remaining three packages contained cocaine and weighed 2.64 pounds. The drugs carried a combined estimated street value of $236,400.”
Ramirez was taken into custody without incident, and the seized drugs were turned over to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The defendant had no documented prior felony convictions in Riverside County.
District Attorney Mike Hestrin joined Orange County D.A. Todd Spitzer and others last week in a fentanyl awareness media briefing in Riverside. Both prosecutors declared the widespread distribution of fentanyl a regional and national crisis.
They said the synthetic opioid is being shipped in massive quantities from China and transported across the U.S.-Mexico border by drug cartels with virtual impunity.
“We’re overwhelmed,” Hestrin said.
Fentanyl is known to be 80-100 times more potent than morphine and is a popular additive, seamlessly mixed into any number of narcotics and pharmaceuticals.
According to Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco, data is pending, but it appears there were about 500 fentanyl-induced deaths countywide last year, which would represent a 250-fold increase from 2016, when only two such fatalities were documented.