California man sentenced to federal prison after $6 million Southern Utah drug bust

Entrance to Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution in Los Angeles County, Calif. | Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Prisons, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A 21-year-old California man was sentenced to federal prison Thursday, following a traffic stop last summer where Utah Highway Patrol troopers recovered more than $6 million in methamphetamine, fentanyl and cocaine.

Stock image | St. George News

Jonathan Manuel Vargas, 22, appeared in U.S. District Court for sentencing on one count of possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, a charge Vargas pleaded guilty to in October 2022.

He was also indicted on two additional charges — possession of fentanyl with intent to distribute and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute — charges both sides asked to be dismissed in exchange for the defendant’s guilty plea.

The charges stem from a traffic stop that took place July 26, 2022, on Interstate 15 near mile marker 63 in Iron County, when a highway trooper became suspicious while speaking to Vargas. A K-9 was deployed and alerted to the possible presence of narcotics.

Following the animal’s alert, troopers searched the car and found a duffel bag that contained several plastic Tupperware containers with suspected methamphetamine. In all, troopers recovered nearly 192 pounds of suspected narcotics during the traffic stop, or roughly 88.5 kilos valued at more than $6 million.

During an interview, troopers learned that Vargas had previous trafficking charges and estimated he had made 5 to 10 previous trips with drugs in the vehicle. He also alleged ties to Mexican gangs.

On Aug. 17, less than a month later, Vargas was indicted by federal prosecutors on the three federal distribution charges and his state case was dismissed. During Thursday’s hearing before U.S. District Court Judge David Nuffer, the government was represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela Reddish-Day in St. George.

Stock image of Utah Highway Patrol vehicles, Hurricane, Utah, Oct. 11, 2019 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

She said the recommended sentence of 87 months in prison struck a balance between the seriousness of the offense and the defendant’s lack of a criminal history.

Vargas was arrested for trafficking more than 175 pounds of methamphetamine, 11 pounds of fentanyl powder and more than six pounds of cocaine, Reddish-Day said. 

“This offense is a serious one without a doubt,” the prosecutor added.

Matt Munson, Vargas’s defense attorney, stated that his client accepted responsibility for his actions and has worked very hard while in custody in Iron County to learn from his mistakes.

2021 file photo for illustrative purposes only of Iron County Jail, Cedar City, Utah, Nov. 24, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Munson asked that his client be placed in Federal Correctional Institution Terminal Island, located in Los Angeles County, California, one of the federal facilities that offers substance abuse treatment.

Prior to sentencing, Nuffer said that both sides worked diligently to solve the case that is wrought with factors that were both complex and contradictory. Those factors must be balanced with the need for deterrence and to promote respect for the law, he said.

The judge then sentenced Vargas to serve 87 months in prison, with the recommendation that Vargas serve his time at the Terminal Island facility.

The judge also ordered that two counts of the indictment be dismissed, pursuant to the sentencing recommendations as agreed upon by both sides. Upon his release, Nuffer ordered that Vargas be placed on post prison supervision for three years by the Bureau of Prisons.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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