Almost a ton of marijuana was seized and $58,000 in cash confiscated after the arrest of five men linked to an international drug-smuggling operation that stretched from Southeast Asia to Southern California, police have reported.
The arrests, made by officers of the multiagency Orange County Regional Narcotics Suppression task force, followed a monthlong undercover investigation in Orange and San Diego counties.
Four suspects, including one from New Zealand and a second who listed his address as Singapore, were arrested Tuesday night while allegedly transporting 1,800 pounds of high-grade marijuana through the streets of Orange in a rented truck. The fifth suspect was arrested at a Costa Mesa apartment believed to have been used by the group.
All five men were booked on suspicion of conspiracy to possess marijuana for sale and are being held in the Orange County Jail. Bail was set at $2 million each.
The marijuana, compressed and packed in kilo-weight plastic bags, was believed to have come from Thailand and to have been brought to the area by ship. Police said the marijuana had a street value of about $3.5 million and was bound for sale to local distributors.
'Best Stuff in a Long Time'
"This is about the best stuff that's come along in a long time," Costa Mesa Police Chief Dave Snowden said of the quality of the marijuana seized. "We have reason to believe that this particular stuff is from Southeast Asia.
"This should serve as a strong message that if you deal in any controlled substance, you'll eventually (have to deal) with the task force."
The Regional Narcotics Suppression Program was formed last year and is composed of undercover narcotics officers from the Orange County sheriff's office, 11 local police agencies, the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Customs, the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI.
Arrested were Timothy Joseph McKenna, 39, of Culver City; Dennis Edward Cunningham, 40, of Tacoma, Wash., Roderick Harold Thompson, 27, of Kerikeri, New Zealand; Gerry Edward Lee, 33, originally from Seattle but most recently of Singapore, and Peter Anthony DeLeLis, 40, who refused to give officials his hometown or address.
Task force coordinator Capt. Tim Simon said Wednesday that investigators believe the marijuana was smuggled into Orange County from a freighter off the coast. Thompson, he said, listed his occupation as a ship's first mate.
Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates said it was significant that none of the suspects either worked or lived in Orange County. "These people may be part of a very large organized ring of international drug smugglers," he said.
Snowden and other investigators said the suspects had been under surveillance for almost a month, both in Orange County and near Oceanside. On Monday, agents followed two of them to a truck rental yard in Costa Mesa and then to an apartment complex.
The next day, police said, Thompson left the apartment and "drove around the area as if looking for law enforcement surveillance activity." He then returned to the apartment, where he was met by several of the other suspects driving a rental truck and a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
With Thompson in the lead, all three vehicles left Costa Mesa heading toward Orange, where they were later stopped. A search of the truck turned up the marijuana, police said, packed in 20-kilo boxes.
Inside the Hamilton Street apartment, agents said they found $58,000 in cash and about two ounces of a substance they suspect is cocaine. Police said they turned over to friends of McKenna the suspect's dog, a Rottweiler trained to attack on command.