One Phoenix Sting Paid Off for Cops - Part 6

One Phoenix Sting Paid Off for Cops - Part 6
Posted by FoM on January 20, 2000 at 22:25:39 PT
By Dennis Wagner, The Arizona Republic
Source: Arizona Central
Jose Soto dialed a cell phone number and arranged to buy some dope from a local drug dealer. The exchange went down a mile from the heart of Phoenix. Soto was handed a plastic bag containing heroin. He tasted it, announced that the stuff was good, then paid $625 for a half-ounce. It was a good deal. Not because of the price, but because Soto was an undercover detective with the Phoenix Police Department. And this small-time buy opened the door to one of central Arizona's biggest smuggling and distribution networks. 
When it was over, more than 80 people were indicted. Police seized major loads of cocaine, heroin and pot. They confiscated millions of dollars in cash. They claimed at least one victory in America's drug war. Soto's first suspect, according to court records, was Roberto Villa Zavala. He drove off in a green pickup, slowing down, going in circles, checking for a tail. Surveillance units followed him to a west-side carwash, a drug distribution center across the street from Carl Hayden High School. According to court records, Villa, 30, told the detective that he imported narcotics from Michoacan and Sinaloa in Mexico. Not just heroin, but cocaine, pot and methamphetamine. He wondered if Soto was interested in any of those products. Soto was. One deal involved about 5 kilos of coke for $67,500; another involved 10 pounds of meth at $40,500. Eventually, Soto concluded that Villa was a midlevel vendor in an elaborate syndicate. So, for months, he and other detectives worked up the drug chain, making purchases at a Kmart, a Jack In The Box, a Circle K and other public spots within a couple of miles of police headquarters. Smugglers and distributors spoke in code. They used countersurveillance vehicles to watch for spies. Phoenix police and other agents responded with wiretaps to record phone conversations and pager calls. The Drug Enforcement Administration gave the case a nickname: Operation Second Hand. The Witch Doctor:According to court records, Greg Richman dropped into the web on July 26, 1998. The son of a physician, Richman worked for a Valley mortgage company. Investigators said he bought an eight-ball of coke (an eighth of an ounce of cocaine) from Villa, then hid it beneath the seat of his Chevy Blazer. A marked police car pulled Richman over, ostensibly for a traffic violation. Moments later, he was wearing handcuffs and under arrest, purportedly on an unrelated criminal warrant. But there was no warrant. Richman was taken to the police station and fingerprinted, then informed that the whole thing was a mistake. He was free to go. After driving a short distance, police say, Richman stopped to search for the stash of coke. It was gone. He called Villa, told him the cops had ripped him off and arranged to buy more drugs. The conversation was recorded on a wiretap. Richman, who declined to comment, eventually cut a deal with prosecutors and entered a drug diversion program. After completing probation, his record will be expunged. Meanwhile, Villa figured out that the police were onto him. Eavesdropping detectives filed a report noting his panic: "Roberto calls Tony in Las Vegas. Roberto tells Tony, who is a santero (witch doctor), that they (cops) have him fried. . . . Roberto states that all day yesterday they followed him. . . . He doesn't know what to do. Tony tells Roberto to spread some comino (an herb) where he goes to ward off police." Villa next called his mom in Mexico and learned that another friend had been busted. His mother begged him to quit dealing drugs and focus on his carwash. Villa declined. Money, he said, runs out too quickly. On Nov. 6, he was indicted in Operation Second Hand. Police said he headed the "Zavala Drug Distribution Enterprise." Villa's trial is pending. Bugging for Drugs:The wiretap surveillance became an ever-expanding web. Police used phone records to identify new syndicates and key players. Then, they bugged more lines. In all, 24 wiretap authorizations were approved. The smugglers conversed almost exclusively in Spanish, using an ever-changing code. When a shipment arrived from Mexico, they'd say, "The bulls are running." Cocaine was referred to as "cars," "pizzas" and "work." Raw cocaine was a "naked girl." Doses of methamphetamine were "windows." Dealers seldom used their real names, relying instead on nicknames such as Flaco (Skinny), Chapo (Dwarf) and Guero (Pale One). They were just as creative when it came to hiding the drugs. Detectives on one stakeout watched as two cars pulled up to a suspect's home. The drivers removed batteries from the vehicles and went inside. They came out later, again carrying the batteries, which had been partially hollowed for the shipment of drugs. Phones were under scrutiny 18 hours a day, and officers listened to multiple lines during nine-hour shifts. The operations are expensive, grueling -- and long. Phoenix Sgt. Dan Jaramillo and other narcs listened and watched for months. Jaramillo is the drug squad prototype, a tough guy with tattoos and savvy for gang attitudes. He's been a Phoenix cop for 21 years and has spent the past decade in a Drug Enforcement Bureau that now has 80 officers. Like most undercover officers, Jaramillo is furtive about his personal life and his work. Exposure makes cops vulnerable. Until about 10 years ago, few drug dealers were armed with anything more than a revolver. "Nowadays," Jaramillo said, "it's automatic weapons, hand grenades, sophisticated surveillance equipment, bunkers . . ." Hidden Money:During Operation Second Hand, detectives identified at least three related rings working for the Carillo Fuentes cartel, one of the world's largest. Drugs were flown or trucked to border cities, funneled to Tucson and Phoenix, then shipped from stash houses to the Pacific Northwest and the East Coast. Money made the same trip in reverse. As detectives worked, they knew that every day of waiting allowed more narcotics in, more money out. On Aug. 20, they learned about a major cash shipment. Surveillance teams followed a 1997 Chevy van from a central Phoenix house south on Interstate 10. The driver, Ismael Melendez-Rascon, was accompanied by an adult woman and a 10-year-old girl. Police asked a Highway Patrol officer to pull the van over near Casa Grande. Detectives and cash-sniffing dogs found nothing. But Soto, in Phoenix, was positive that the van had been loaded. He told investigators to hold on, then drove to the scene with a veteran U.S. Customs inspector. They found a flap on the dashboard carpet. It concealed hidden electronics, which opened a trap door over the air-conditioning ducts, which contained $695,910. Each neatly wrapped packet was marked with the letter "G," which investigators believe is the brand used by Gilberto Vasquez Bermudez, who was suspected of being the ringleader. Melendez-Rascon claimed ignorance and was released with his passengers. That same day, according to surveillance records, Villa called Vasquez Bermudez with a news flash: "Ishma had a problem." Three months later, detectives got word of a cocaine shipment arriving in Phoenix and more cash going south. Surveillance teams spotted a van unloading on 10th Street. They got a search warrant and moved in. The driver of one van was stopped leaving the house with $635,000. Another vehicle had 25 kilos of coke on board. A third suspect was found hiding in a car with $350,000. It was time to get warrants and move on the whole syndicate. The Raid:At 5 a.m. on Dec. 8, 1998, about 250 cops and other public servants gathered in the Phoenix Police Academy auditorium. This wasn't a training exercise, but the staging for an enormous raid. Cops were handed more than 80 warrants and ordered to fan across the Valley, arresting criminals and seizing dope. Assistant Maricopa County Attorney Dick Mesh recalls watching SWAT team members armed with automatic weapons, thinking, "Holy cow. This really is a war." Uniformed officers would serve the warrants. Dogs were deployed to sniff out drugs, money and weapons. Spanish-speaking officers were assigned to each team. The Immigration and Naturalization Service was on hand to deal with illegal immigrants. The National Guard's Joint Counter-Narcotics Task Force had trucks to pick up seized property. Forensics teams prepared to gather evidence. Vans were assigned to haul suspects off to jail. Department of Economic Security workers waited to deal with kids left behind when their parents were arrested. Over the next 24 hours, more than a dozen homes and businesses were raided. Police seized 50 kilograms of cocaine, an arsenal of weapons and $1.8 million in cash. They rounded up 30 suspects that day; dozens more evaded the net. At one residence, where suspect Ramon Lopez Coronel lived with his wife and 4-year-old son, investigators found $35,000 in a cereal box. Because this was a wiretap case, and detectives didn't always know which incriminating voice belonged to which face, the work had only begun. Arrestees were tape-recorded as they arrived for booking. Investigators compared voices with earlier recordings to determine who was whom. Each interview required translation and analysis. Police reports had to be typed immediately to meet legal deadlines. Within days, Mesh was meeting with detectives, going over evidence and matching suspects and charges. The enforcement team worked 20-hour shifts. Then, a secretary was given two days to type up 172 felony counts, plus backup papers on 54 suspects. Cutting Deals:All told, more than 80 people were indicted in Operation Second Hand on 300-plus felony charges. Most of those who were captured portray themselves in court files as average folks -- landscapers and construction workers, mothers and fathers. Villa, 30, is the father of a 7-month-old child and owns an auto detail shop on 35th Avenue. A public defender asked the court to drop Villa's $256,000 bail and release him to his wife's custody. Prosecutors responded that Villa faced 22 felony counts and was recorded making drug calls from Mexico. They also argued that his wife, Bertha, would not be an appropriate custodian. They supplied the court with a photograph that was seized as evidence. The picture showed Villa beside his wife, who has white powder on her hands and neck, and the tip of her baby finger by her nose. The County Attorney's Office gives most defendants a choice: Plead out and do about half the mandatory time, or face what Mesh calls "the full power of the law." Mesh sees no point in focusing on drug war "minnows," who earn peanuts for smuggling and dealing dope. That means small-timers can get off with probation rather than prison. "Everybody is somebody else's guy in this business," Mesh said. "There are a lot of little people out of Mexico who are hungry and need to feed their families. . . . The vast majority of them, they get a couple bucks off the top. You'll see they live in hovels." In Operation Second Hand, like most such cases, the plea bargains rolled in. One example: Jose Angel Avalos, 28, who moved to Arizona from Mexico 10 years ago and worked as a blacksmith before his arrest. Court records show that Avalos and his wife have a baby and two other children, ages 2 and 6. Avalos pleaded guilty to a felony drug charge. Defense attorney Neil LaBarge asked for leniency, noting that his client had no prior record, was a sole breadwinner for his family and a model jail inmate. LaBarge also mentioned that Arizona prisons are at maximum capacity, and he supplied 22 reference letters explaining why Avalos should not join the inmate population. One, written in Spanish, was from his wife, Elizabeth. "My husband has always been responsible with me and the children," it read. "He's always been a loving parent who works hard so we will not lack anything, giving his best to get ahead in this country." Avalos began serving a 27-month prison sentence in April. Those suspected of being ringleaders, such as Gilberto Vasquez Bermudez, are more likely to demand a trial. At 34, Bermudez runs an auto repair shop in south Phoenix. According to court records, Bermudez has an eighth-grade education, a wife and six kids. The family lived in a little gray house on 15th Avenue, across from Phoenix College. Then, Bermudez got hauled off to jail, charged with 56 criminal counts and held on $10 million bail. Police identified him as "the principal participant in a cocaine distribution enterprise that had literally daily activity." Bermudez declined a plea bargain and pleaded innocent. He is awaiting trial along with a handful of other defendants. Mesh, the prosecutor, concedes that prison sentences, dope seizures and confiscated money won't stop drug smugglers and distributors. But he looks at the drug war and sees no alternative. "Anyone who has met a real meth freak - lives destroyed, gone off the deep end . . . that's real dangerous (stuff)," Mesh said. "How much worse would it be if we didn't put in the effort to stem the tide?" Published: January 21, 2000Copyright 2000, Arizona CentralRelated Articles In The Series:Chance Led To Side Job as Arizona Drug Runner - 1/20/2000 Methods Have Place in Fight - 1/19/2000 Contest of Wits at U.S. Border - 1/18/2000 is Pipeline for Illegal Drugs - 1/17/2000 Losing Drug War - 1/16/2000 
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