A California man arrested after a manhunt in Sweet Grass County and suspected of having about five pounds of meth admitted federal charges on Wednesday in Billings.

Ronald Andrew Smith, 35, of La Honda, California, pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute meth. There was no plea agreement.

Law enforcement arrested Smith after a Montana Highway Patrol trooper pulled a vehicle over on Feb. 19 near Big Timber; Smith and co-defendant Jairo Sebastian Vela-Diaz, also of California, were traveling in the car.

The trooper suspected Smith was trafficking drugs and told him the vehicle would be impounded while he applied for a search warrant, said Assistant U.S. Attorney John Sullivan.

Smith then rushed back to his vehicle, fought off two troopers who tried to stop him and drove away, Sullivan said.

Smith’s vehicle eventually got stuck in the snow and he ran away. Law enforcement officers followed footprints in the snow near his vehicle and found personal belongings and two plastic-wrapped packages containing about two pounds of meth, Sullivan said.

Officers arrested Smith the next day. During an interview with law enforcement, Smith admitted he drove from California to deliver meth to a person in Montana. He also drew a map that led to the recovery of about 2.5 pounds of meth near his vehicle, Sullivan said.

The search for Smith included a manhunt by Sweet Grass County Sheriff’s officers and others. The search began that evening but was called off at about midnight. The search resumed in the morning with about 30 people from the sheriff’s office, its search and rescue team, a reserve unit, a canine team from Park County and an MHP helicopter.

Law enforcement got a cellphone number during the traffic stop and were able to track its location from a call made by the phone to a number in California.

Sweet Grass County Sheriff Dan Tronrud said earlier that search teams found an abandoned cottage where the men had stayed overnight. By late afternoon, a rancher spotted the men emerging from a brush pile, and the men were arrested a short time later.

On Monday, Watters dismissed charges against Vela-Diaz on the government’s motion. The prosecution said it was unable to meet its burden to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

Watters set Smith’s sentencing for Jan. 24. Smith faces a minimum mandatory 10 years to life in prison and a $10 million fine. He remains in custody.



Federal court and county reporter for The Billings Gazette.