Nathan John Vargas, a 42-year-old resident of Las Vegas, Nevada, has been sentenced to 25 years in prison for his involvement in an elaborate scheme where he and others posed as law enforcement officers to ambush and kidnap two Southern California marijuana money couriers. Vargas pleaded guilty to carjacking, a felony, and admitted to intentionally discharging a firearm during the crime.
The incident, which took place in September 2020 on Highway 162 as the couriers were traveling to Covelo with nearly $700,000 in cash, involved Vargas and his cohorts disguising themselves as law enforcement officers.
According to a press release from the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department, Roy Ha and Vargas, along with several other individuals, donned body armor and armed themselves before ambushing two marijuana money couriers on Highway 162, just east of Highway 101. While attempting to carry out their crime, one of the victims managed to escape and promptly contacted law enforcement, providing them with descriptions of the suspects’ vehicles.
The suspects with victims fled south on Highway 101 and then turned east onto Highway 20. A sharp-eyed Mendocino County Sheriff’s Sergeant recognized the vehicles based on the broadcast description, leading to a high-speed chase. As the pursuit unfolded, a Mendocino County Deputy successfully conducted a traffic stop on one of the suspect vehicles, a Toyota Tacoma, and arrested the driver, identified as Jesus Estevan Vargas Jr.
Meanwhile, the black Chevrolet Tahoe, the second suspect vehicle, continued evading law enforcement at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour. After a few miles, the Tahoe made a U-turn on Highway 20, briefly headed westbound before turning onto a rural property near Mile Post Marker 41 on the east side of the highway.
Following the Tahoe’s path along a rugged dirt road leading into a wooded hillside, law enforcement officers became concerned about a potential ambush and decided to establish a search perimeter. During this time, the Sergeant received information about a possible exit point to the east along Highway 101 and positioned himself to intercept the Tahoe.
Shortly afterward, gunshots rang out, followed by the sound of a person screaming. Law enforcement personnel on the search perimeter were then approached by two adult male victims. These individuals revealed that they had been kidnapped during the armed robbery then they had been zip-tied and had their heads covered with some kind of cloth. According to their account, the Tahoe had become disabled on the dirt road, and one of the victims was shot in the back while attempting to escape. The victims reported that the two suspects, armed with assault-style rifles and wearing body armor, had fled on foot.
The injured victim, suffering from a gunshot wound to the back, was immediately airlifted to an out-of-county hospital for medical treatment. Given the circumstances and the potential danger posed by the armed suspects, the Mendocino County Multi-Agency SWAT team was called in for assistance. Equipped with an armored Citizen Rescue Vehicle (CRV), the SWAT team, accompanied by the California Highway Patrol’s helicopter, H-14, began searching the area.
During their aerial operations, H-14 spotted one of the suspects in the wooded terrain uphill from the disabled Tahoe. This suspect voluntarily surrendered to the SWAT team by descending the hill. H-14 continued its overflight and located the second suspect, Nathan John Vargas, nearby, armed with a handgun and rifle. Gunshots were heard, believed to originate from Vargas, but he remained alive and potentially dangerous despite suffering a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Eventually, the SWAT team took the badly injured Vargas into custody and began giving him life-saving medical assistance.
This May, as part of his plea agreement, Vargas waived his appellate rights and all pre-sentence good time/work time credits he would have earned while in jail awaiting trial, amounting to approximately two and two-thirds years. Due to Vargas’s health issues resulting from the self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head during his arrest, it is expected that he will be housed in a state prison medical facility such as the California Health Care Facility in Stockton or the California Medical Facility in Vacaville.
According to a Facebook post from the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office, considering the violent nature of Vargas’s offense and his use of a firearm, early release credits earned while in prison are capped at 15 percent of the overall sentence under current state law. This means Vargas is likely to serve approximately 21 ¼ years of his 25-year sentence, subject to deductions for any in-custody rule violations determined by prison authorities.
Below is the full Facebook post from the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office:
A Las Vegas-based defendant who slipped into Mendocino County in September 2020 disguised with others as law enforcement officers to ambush two Southern California marijuana money couriers (traveling to Covelo on Highway 162 with almost $700,000 in U.S. currency) resolved his case at the end of May and appeared Friday morning, June 23rd, for sentencing.
Defendant Nathan John Vargas, now 42 years of age, of Las Vegas, Nevada, stands convicted by plea of carjacking, a felony. Vargas also admitted a sentencing enhancement that he personally and intentionally discharged a firearm during the commission of the crime.
Pursuant to Penal Code section 215, the statute which defines California’s carjacking law (an aggravated form of robbery), it is illegal to take a vehicle and its contents from another person by means of force or fear. The term “force or fear” means physical violence or threats of harm.
The defendant ultimately accepted the prosecutor’s one and only offer mandating a state prison sentence of twenty-five (25) years in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to fully resolve his participation in the ambush/[kidnapping].
As part of the disposition package, defendant Vargas also waived his appellate rights and all pre-sentence good time/work time credits that he normally would have “earned” from sitting in jail awaiting trial, meaning approximately two and two-thirds years’ worth of credits.
Given this defendant’s long-term health deficits resulting from a botched suicide attempt vis-à-vis shooting himself in the head (instead of surrendering to the Sheriff’s approaching Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit), it is believed that Vargas will be housed at a state prison medical facility, such as the California Health Care Facility (CHCF) in Stockton or the California Medical Facility (CMF) in Vacaville.
Furthermore, as the defendant’s crime and use of a firearm are characterized as violent by the California Penal Code, the early release credit defendant Vargas may attempt to earn beginning Friday and moving forward while he is in state prison is capped by current state law at no more than 15 percent of the overall sentence, meaning he should be required by prison authorities to serve 21 ¼ years of his 25-year sentence, absent deductions, if any, made by prison authorities due to any in-custody violations of prison rules.
The law enforcement and other agencies that assisted in the initial response and follow-on investigation were the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office, the California Highway Patrol, Cal Fire, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, the Ukiah Police Department, MedStar Ambulance, the Potter Valley Fire Department, the Las Vegas Police Department, the FBI, and the District Attorney’s own Bureau of Investigation.
The attorney who has been handling the prosecution of this defendant from December 2020 to the present is District Attorney David Eyster.
Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Victoria Shanahan accepted the defendant’s change of plea and admission in late May. Judge Shanahan also presided over what turned out to be a relatively short sentencing hearing Friday morning given the final result was a stipulated outcome.