Two men who were allegedly operating a “honey oil” lab in Cherry Valley when it exploded and severely burned one of them now face federal charges of operating an illegal drug manufacturing facility.
Hector Gallegos, 34, of San Jacinto, surrendered to authorities yesterday and made his initial court appearance.
The second defendant in the case – James Ray Wallis III, 34, of Cherry Valley – is currently a fugitive who is being sought by authorities.
The two defendants were named in a criminal complaint filed last Friday that charges both men with endangering human life while illegally manufacturing a controlled substance, a federal felony offense that carries a statutory maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Wallis and Gallegos allegedly operated a clandestine laboratory where they used butane to extract tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) from marijuana. The resulting product is commonly called honey oil or hash oil, and it contains a much higher percentage of THC than found in traditional marijuana products.
During the early morning hours of February 16, Riverside County fire authorities were summoned to a house fire on Dutton Street in Cherry Valley, just north of Beaumont. CAL FIRE personnel were unable to combat the fire immediately because several 20-ounce butane canisters – which are commonly used in THC extraction labs – were exploding inside the residence, according to the affidavit in support of the criminal complaint.
After the fire was extinguished, Riverside County Sheriff’s Department personnel searched the property and “discovered several black plastic bins containing marijuana, over 1,000 20-ounce butane canisters, extracted THC spread out on wax paper sheets and contained within six small glass jars, a small indoor marijuana grow located in the basement of the residence, a partially burned PVC extraction tube loaded with marijuana, two handguns and three rifles,” according to the complaint.
Authorities soon learned that Wallis lived at the residence and was seen by neighbors soon after the fire erupted. Wallis’ 10-year-old child was inside the house when the explosion occurred, but the child was not harmed by the explosion or subsequent fire.
“Using butane to extract the psychoactive agent in marijuana is not only illegal – it is an extremely dangerous process,” said United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker. “One of the defendants in this case was seriously injured and a small child barely escaped injury. Unfortunately, we are seeing an increase in the number of explosions at household laboratories, which endangers neighborhoods, as well as first responders.”
Wallis fled the scene after the fire, and he remains a fugitive. Gallegos, who also fled the scene after the explosion, was discovered later in the day at Loma Linda Hospital. Gallegos had suffered third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body. Gallegos recently was released from the hospital, and he surrendered himself yesterday.
“As evidenced in this case, clandestine drug manufacturing labs are extremely hazardous and pose a serious threat of bodily injury – or even death – to would-be operators, as well as innocent bystanders,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Steve Comer. “Fortunately, the child was unharmed and the individuals who put themselves and the entire neighborhood at risk have been removed from the community.”
At his initial appearance yesterday afternoon in United States District Court, Gallegos was freed on a $50,000 bond and was ordered to return to court for a preliminary hearing on March 29 and an arraignment on April 5.
A criminal complaint contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent until and unless proven guilty in court.
The investigation into the clandestine lab was conducted by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, Special Investigation Bureau, Marijuana Enforcement Team.
This case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Tritia L. Yuen of the Riverside Branch Office.