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Did a deputy arrested for allegedly having 104 pounds of fentanyl in his car work for a Mexican cartel?

Last month, Jorge Oceguera Rocha left home in his gray Honda Civic. His colleagues in the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department were watching.

They tailed Oceguera, a 25-year-old sheriff’s deputy assigned to the jail in his hometown of Banning, to a modest brown home in Victorville. They followed him onto the 10 Freeway, where a marked patrol cruiser pulled him over.

In the trunk of Oceguera’s car, an investigator wrote in a sworn declaration, police found four trash bags stuffed with 104 pounds of fentanyl.

A four-year deputy, Oceguera always dreamed of becoming a police officer, his lawyer said. Now, authorities accuse him of working for a Mexican drug cartel. He is being held on $5-million bail, charged with possessing fentanyl and transporting the drug for sale while armed.

“All we hear is ‘correctional officer’ and ‘cartel’ and ‘fentanyl,’” said his attorney, Randy Collins. “This person is 25 years old. The one thing I can tell you is during our last meeting, he told me, ‘I promise you I’m not a bad person.’”

A review of court documents and interviews shows the investigation that led to Oceguera’s arrest on Sept. 17 was wider than previously known. Two other men were arrested in the same case but have not been charged, according to booking records and a spokeswoman for the Riverside County district attorney. Riverside County sheriff’s investigators took the aggressive step of placing a wiretap on Oceguera’s phone, which intercepted discussions between Oceguera and a relative about drug trafficking, an investigator wrote in a declaration.

Sheriff’s Capt. Adriaan Roggeveen, who leads the bureau that arrested Oceguera, said his detectives were pursuing a larger drug trafficking case when they identified the deputy as a target.

“If we have an employee who is not upholding the standard, we are going to go after him. This whole idea of the ‘thin blue line’? No. if you are a criminal in an organization, we are going to find you because that’s our job,” Roggeveen told The Times. “Weeding out dirty employees at any organization is paramount to what we do. Otherwise, they erode the public trust.”

The arrest of Oceguera was the latest in a series of embarrassments for the Sheriff’s Department. Days earlier, Deputy Brent Bishop Turnwall was arrested in the county jail where he worked, suspected of possessing drugs and being under the influence of them, the Riverside Press Enterprise reported.

In April, undercover deputies sold 60 pounds of methamphetamine to criminals who made off with the drugs before the Sheriff’s Department could apprehend them.

Oceguera, who has pleaded not guilty, is a U.S. citizen who grew up in Banning, a city of 30,000 about 30 miles east of Riverside, Collins said. The lawyer described his client’s family as “well-educated people that work in the community. They’ve lived there their whole lives.”

Oceguera attended Cal State Long Beach from 2016 to 2019, graduating with a bachelor’s in criminal justice, said Jim Milbury, a spokesman for the school. He was hired by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department that year, assigned to the Larry D. Smith Correctional Facility in Banning.

Oceguera was engaged to be married and bought a house in his hometown, Collins said. “By all accounts he was doing the right things in life to get on his feet.”

Property records show Oceguera bought a house on the southern side of Banning in 2022 for $330,000, taking out a mortgage for nearly the entire amount.

In a declaration filed in court, Riverside County Deputy Joshua Ricard said the department’s Special Investigations Bureau opened a drug trafficking case on Oceguera in September. It’s unclear what led investigators to focus on Oceguera, but that month, Ricard wrote, they persuaded a judge to give them authority to intercept his phone calls.

On Sept. 16, they overheard on a call that Oceguera planned to go to “an identified narcotic stash location” in Victorville, Ricard wrote. That afternoon, deputies followed Oceguera from Banning to a house on Pacoima Road in Victorville.

When he arrived, Oceguera called a relative, Ricard wrote. The garage door opened, Oceguera pulled his Civic inside and the door closed behind him. Ten minutes later, Oceguera reversed out of the driveway and headed back toward Banning.

Oceguera was pulled over on the 10 Freeway near the Oak Valley Parkway exit in Calimesa. After a police dog detected the scent of drugs, Oceguera and his car were searched, Ricard wrote. According to his declaration, deputies found in the trunk of the Civic four trash bags filled with square, cellophane-wrapped packages of “blue fentanyl-laced M30 pills.” The pills — 520,000 of them — weighed 104 pounds, Ricard wrote.

Inside a bag on the backseat of the Civic was Oceguera’s “duty weapon,” a loaded Glock handgun, Ricard wrote. After being arrested and advised of his Miranda rights, Oceguera refused to talk.

In arguing for Oceguera’s bail to be set at $5 million, Ricard described him as “a grave threat to the general public.” As a sheriff’s deputy, Oceguera “has knowledge of the dangers of fentanyl and the mass overdose pandemic,” Ricard wrote, yet he possessed a huge quantity of the drug “with no regard for public safety.”

Ricard said Oceguera was a flight risk, noting he traveled to Mexico several times in recent months to visit family. Then Ricard went on to claim that Oceguera “conducts narcotics-related activity in concert with the Mexican Cartel.”

“The Mexican Cartel is one of the largest criminal enterprises worldwide and is responsible for the vast majority of all narcotics trafficking within the United States,” Ricard wrote. “In addition to the mass amounts of narcotics, the Mexican Cartel and its various members have access to a near infinite amount of currency.”

It’s unclear which cartel Ricard was referring to. Mexico’s drug trafficking networks are divided among many cartels and subgroups who fight for control of smuggling routes and distribution centers.

Roggeveen, the sheriff’s captain, declined to discuss specifics of Oceguera’s case, including alleged cartel ties or other targets of the investigation.

Collins said that based on the limited evidence that has been provided to him, “I haven’t seen anything that shows a direct link between Jorge and a cartel.” He cautioned that he had not yet heard the wiretapped calls.

Between the cartel allegations and Ricard’s statement that the amount of fentanyl seized from Oceguera’s car was enough to kill 2 million people, the declaration “is so inflammatory that once you read it, it’s hard not to justify” the $5-million bail figure, Collins said. He said Oceguera’s bail should not be so high, considering his family’s roots in Banning and his lack of a prior criminal record.

Two other men were arrested in the same case, then released without being charged, records show. Collins said one was in the car with Oceguera when deputies pulled them over, while the other was Oceguera’s uncle. Ricard’s declaration makes no mention of either man. Both were discharged from jail three days after their arrest, according to jail records.

Brooke Beare, a spokeswoman for the Riverside County district attorney, wrote in an email that the Sheriff’s Department had not submitted cases on “other possible co-defendants.” Beare said Oceguera is not accused of smuggling drugs into the jails or abusing his police powers in the drug trafficking crimes with which he is charged.

Oceguera was held for a time in the same jail where he once worked, according to his lawyer.

“That’s a scary situation for him,” Collins said. “He’s scared about being there. He’s scared about being in that environment.”

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