Two men arrested at Gaviota State Park for being under the influence and transporting tens of thousands of dollars worth of marijuana to San Onofre State Beach earlier this week

A panga boat containing bales of marijuana was found on San Onofre State Beach Monday morning, and two suspects have been arrested in the ongoing investigation.

A local resident was walking his dog along the hiking trails at Gaviota State Park when he noticed a panga boat on the beach and called 911. Santa Barbara Sheriff’s deputies and state park rangers responded to the call and confirmed the 30-foot, two-engine panga boat was involved in drug smuggling.

Deputies and rangers found a 60-pound bale of marijuana worth $25,000 in the boat, along with food and fuel. Additional evidence of food packaging and clothing items were found in the water near the boat. Deputies searched the area and found another 60-pound bale of marijuana on the nearby hiking trails.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Kelly Hoover said James Pierce, 38, and Francisco Soltero, 32, were found and arrested near the vista point at Gaviota State Park.
“Deputies searched the area and located two male suspects from the Riverside area,” Hoover said. “They booked these two individuals on charges of being under influence of controlled substance and possession, transportation and sales of marijuana.”

According to Hoover, it is unknown where the drugs were smuggled from and where the suspects were headed. Hoover also said the marijuana may have been smuggled from within California despite the common perception that drugs are usually smuggled from Mexico.

“There may be an assumption that individuals who are involved in drug smuggling by using panga boats are only individuals from Mexico,” Hoover said. “What we’re finding is that people being arrested with these panga boats are oftentimes from California. We had one in 2014 where several suspects were from the L.A. area.”

Santa Barbara Area State Park Superintendent Eric Hjelstrom said United States Department of Homeland Security has taken over the investigation.

“We received a report that there was a boat there and my officers responded, and then we called Homeland Security,” Hjelstrom said.

According to Hoover, both Homeland Security investigations and the Sheriff’s Department are still considering the possibility that more drugs and suspects were involved in the smuggling incident.

“We suspect that there were more people involved and that there were more narcotics,” Hoover said. “There’s a strong likelihood that the individuals involved were successful in offloading marijuana and possibly they were interrupted or something happened where the two bales were left behind.”


A version of this story appeared on p. 4 of the Thursday, Oct. 1 print edition of the Daily Nexus.