NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – Over 120 law enforcement officers from 30 law enforcement agencies in Virginia, North Carolina and Texas executed a major arrest operation over the last three days, resulting in 35 defendants being arrested for their respective roles in a conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute large amounts of heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, and cocaine base in Hampton Roads.
In addition to the arrests, law enforcement seized 24 firearms, 30 kilograms of fentanyl, 30 kilograms of heroin, 5 kilograms of cocaine, and over $700,000 in cash during the three-day takedown.
“This massive interdiction of narcotics, which included enough fentanyl to kill over 14 million people, is proof positive of the power and strength of federal, state, and local law enforcement collaboration,” said G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. “The 39 charged defendants are just that – charged – and remain innocent unless and until proven otherwise. This operation, through its seizure of scores of kilograms of illicit narcotics, saved lives in the Eastern District and elsewhere. Any day where we can do that is particularly meaningful and impactful. An incredible thank you to our dedicated law enforcement partners and prosecutors.”
According to the 106-count indictment, which was returned by a federal grand jury on August 14 and unsealed this afternoon, 39 co-conspirators were involved in an alleged large-scale drug trafficking conspiracy that began in March 2016. The co-conspirators participated in various criminal acts throughout the alleged conspiracy, including armed drug distribution, while assuming and carrying out different roles such as a supplier, packager, transporter, financier, distributor, and facilitator throughout the life of the alleged drug trafficking ring.
“The narcotics organization identified by our team reached far and wide, spanning state lines and crossing all the way to and from our southern border,” said Michael K. Lamonea, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Norfolk. “This indictment, and the 106 counts within, demonstrates clearly that the dangerous and illegal smuggling operations from the border limitlessly stretch into the United States and reach directly into our neighborhoods and communities.”
The indictment alleges that the defendants and unindicted co-conspirators would purchase and receive narcotics from suppliers in Mexico, California, and New York, and would arrange for heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, and cocaine base to be transported to and within the Eastern District of Virginia using hidden traps in privately owned vehicles, couriers, and semi-trailers, trucks, and recreational vehicles.
It was further part of the conspiracy that the defendants and co-conspirators would utilize various locations throughout Hampton Roads to possess and prepare for distribution heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, and cocaine base, and to meet and discuss previous and future narcotics transactions. These various locations include houses and parking lots of businesses located in Newport News, Hampton, Suffolk, Carrolton, Yorktown, Lawrenceville, South Hill, and Richmond.
“The DEA will continue to prioritize operations like this one, which target the criminal organizations that bring dangerous drugs and violence into our communities here in Virginia,” said Jesse R. Fong, Special Agent in Charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) Washington Field Division. “We stand united with our outstanding federal, state, and local law enforcement counterparts in this endeavor.”
According to the indictment, throughout the life of the drug trafficking ring, the co-conspirators used at least 94 different telecommunication devices such as pre-paid cell phones, Facebook, and encrypted communications apps like FaceTime and WhatsApp to conduct the day-to-day operations, including negotiating prices, and arranging locations for purchasing and selling the drugs. Some of co-conspirators changed devices on a regular basis in an effort to thwart law enforcement surveillance. Typically, the cell phone numbers that were used were in pre-paid cell phones that did not need a subscriber’s name.
The 106-count indictment alleges various offenses, including conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute cocaine, heroin, cocaine base, and fentanyl; conspiracy to launder money; felon in possession of a firearm; maintaining a drug-involved premises; use of a communication facility in furtherance of drug trafficking; interstate travel in aid of racketeering enterprises; and illegal re-entry by a previously deported or removed alien.
The case was investigated as part of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF), Operation Cookout. The OCDETF program is a federal multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional task force that supplies supplemental federal funding to federal and state agencies involved in the identification, investigation, and prosecution of major drug trafficking organizations. The principal mission of the OCDETF program is to identify, disrupt and dismantle the most serious drug trafficking, weapons trafficking and money laundering organizations, and those primarily responsible for the nation’s illegal drug supply.
The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program, created by Congress with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, provides assistance to Federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies operating in areas determined to be critical drug-trafficking regions of the United States. This grant program is administered by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). There are currently 28 HIDTAs, which include approximately 18 percent of all counties in the United States and 66 percent of the U.S. population.
This case is part of Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN), which is the centerpiece of the Department of Justice’s violent crime reduction efforts. PSN is an evidence-based program proven to be effective at reducing violent crime. Through PSN, a broad spectrum of stakeholders work together to identify the most pressing violent crime problems in the community and develop comprehensive solutions to address them. As part of this strategy, PSN focuses enforcement efforts on the most violent offenders and partners with locally based prevention and reentry programs for lasting reductions in crime.
The following law enforcement agencies provided significant assistance during the investigation and arrest operation: U.S. Marshals, Newport News Sheriff’s Office, Chesapeake Sheriff’s Office, York-Poquason Sheriff’s Office, Tennessee Highway Patrol, Amarillo Police, and Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office. Approximately 30 law enforcement agencies assisted in the arrest operation in Virginia, North Carolina and Texas.