Lakeport, California: When authorities raided the marijuana growing operation, they found greenhouses filled with plants over 1.8 metres tall, neatly lined with individual irrigation systems. But the rest of the property, one federal agent recalled, looked like a horror scene.
They found dilapidated trailers where farmers appeared to live, caches of weapons and a bloody towel.
“To me, it smacked of a scene from Deliverance,” said David Prince, assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Northern California. “If I was a plant, that’s where I’d want to live. If I was a human, that’s not where I’d want to live.”
It was here, in a remote area east of Clear Lake in Northern California, that authorities allege a kidnapped teenage girl from Los Angeles County was sexually abused and occasionally held captive in a metal box. The box — about 1.2m by-0.6m-by 0.6m — sat outside one of the trailers, with holes drilled through the lid and a blanket inside.
The box “had been altered to imprison a human,” a federal criminal complaint read.
In charges unsealed in San Francisco, federal officials allege that two men had abused the girl and forced her to help with their marijuana production. The girl eventually called authorities from a West Sacramento hotel, where she was rescued, officials said.
The suspects — Ryan Alan Balletto, 30, and Patrick Steven Pearmain, 25 — face numerous felony charges. The Los Angeles Police Department arrested a third man, Eric Edgar, on suspicion of sexual assault.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents had been investigating the 680-acre property owned by Balletto since December 2011, court documents showed.
The girl was reported missing April 2 from a San Fernando Valley home, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. Commander Andy Smith said detectives believe she was living on the streets of Hollywood when she came in contact with Balletto.
A few weeks later, LAPD detectives received a tip that the girl was being held inside some kind of box at an undisclosed location in Northern California. The detectives eventually learned that she was in Lake County with Balletto and informed authorities there.
But before Lake County sheriff’s officials could raid Balletto’s property, they got a call from the girl, records show. She told them she was fine and staying with Balletto. A detective traced the call to the hotel, and authorities there found her in a room with Pearmain.
Authorities say they collected a bag full of marijuana, prescription drugs, condoms and a pregnancy test from the hotel room. Pearmain also had a notebook on him that had an apparent script for the girl to read to police over the phone, authorities say.
Then, authorities raided the marijuana farm.
“It was kind of like opening Pandora’s box,” said Lake County sheriff’s Sergeant Dennis Ostini.
They found 1,200 marijuana plants, guns and other items. But the most horrifying discovery was the metal box the girl said she was kept in. She told police the men made her stay in it on two occasions for a total of three days, court records show.
Spray-painted on the outside was the first letter of the girl’s name. Inside was a decal that “depicted an animal skull surrounding the shadow image of a human skull with the logo ‘Bone Collector,’” according to the court documents.
The men put a hose through one of the holes to clean the girl and wash out the human waste inside, prosecutors alleged. Inside the box investigators found human hair and a poem the girl had written about being held inside the box.
A “rack” allegedly used for bondage and sex toys were also found on the property. Authorities alleged in court papers that Balletto called the girl a “trooper” because she didn’t scream when she was in the box.
Authorities said the investigation is ongoing. US Attorney Northern District spokesman Joshua Eaton said there could be more victims.
Many unanswered questions remain, including the exact connection between the girl and the suspects. It’s unclear how much time she spent at the Lake County property or why she called police when she did.
Balletto and Pearmain pleaded not guilty last week to charges of federal conspiracy to distribute marijuana, using a minor in a drug operation and possession of a firearm to further drug trafficking.
Balletto was booked into Lake County jail on suspicion of cultivating and possessing marijuana, lewd or lascivious acts on a 15-year-old child and being a felon with a firearm. Pearmain was booked on suspicion of cultivating and possessing marijuana, conspiracy to commit a crime, kidnapping and committing a rape and unlawful sex with a minor.
Lake County District Attorney. Don Anderson said Friday that his office initially filed its own criminal charges against Balletto and Pearmain. But after consulting with the US attorney’s office, he dropped those charges until the federal case moved forward.
“We’re going to hold back and let our victim recuperate and feel better about herself, and then look more into the sex crimes,” he said.
Both men were being held without bail. They are due in San Francisco federal court on Wednesday.
For authorities, what started as a fairly standard marijuana-growing case became something much more bizarre.
“The marijuana is really in the back seat,” Prince said. “The welfare of the child ... has everyone very concerned.”