By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Two California men accused of locking a 15-year-old girl in a metal tool box, forcing her to work on a marijuana farm and sexually abusing her pleaded innocent on Friday to a federal indictment as new details emerged in the grim case.
During a hearing in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, Ryan Balletto, 30, and Patrick Pearmain, 25, entered not guilty pleas to a federal grand jury indictment charging them with conspiracy and drug offenses. Balletto was also charged with possessing firearms in furtherance of narcotics trafficking.
Federal prosecutors have accused Balletto and Pearmain of keeping the girl, a runaway from the Los Angeles area, captive for weeks at the remote Northern California compound. Authorities who raided the property in May found more than 1,300 marijuana plants and an arsenal of weapons.
The men are accused of making the girl cut marijuana buds and prepare the drug for sale and consumption, and of keeping her locked for days at a time in a tool box measuring four feet long by two feet wide, into which holes had been cut for air.
Prosecutors have said the 680-acre property in Lake County was an illegal cannabis growing operation owned by Balletto. Equipment used for sexual bondage and sadomasochism, including a homemade rack with eyebolts at the corners to immobilize a person, was found on the property.
Federal sex charges were not filed against the men because the girl was not transported across state lines. State charges, which included rape and false imprisonment, were dismissed to allow the federal case to proceed more quickly.
Federal prosecutors have seized on the case to support their crackdown against grow operations and dispensaries that they have said are fronts for large-scale drug traffickers operating under the cover of California's medical marijuana law.
Advocates of more liberalized cannabis laws have argued that the case shows how law enforcement efforts have failed, while broad legalization and regulation of pot would take the marijuana trade out of the hands of a criminal element.
California was the first of 19 states and the District of Columbia to pass laws approving marijuana for medical purposes, though the federal government classifies pot as an illegal narcotic.
In a legal motion filed last week ahead of a bail hearing in the case and made public on Friday, prosecutors said the teenager told law enforcement officers that Balletto and Pearmain had engaged in multiple sex acts with her.
Another person who worked at the grow site told authorities that the two defendants shocked the teen with a cattle prod or Taser device and restrained her on the wooden rack while she was sexually abused, according to the court document.
Prosecutors said the government had obtained a "recorded, Mirandized confession" from Balletto.
According to an affidavit filed by law enforcement, in late April Balletto was already under investigation for narcotics trafficking when Los Angeles police asked sheriff's deputies in Lake County to investigate a tip that he had kidnapped an underage girl to sexually abuse her.
Deputies were unable to find the girl at Balletto's property, the affidavit said, but they got a call from her the following day in which she said that she was OK. Police who traced the cell phone signal then found the teenager with Pearmain in a Sacramento area hotel.
Balletto and Pearmain are due back in court on August 21 for pre-trial proceedings.
(Writing and additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Toni Reinhold)