Federal and Orange County narcotics agents have confiscated 18 pounds of heroin and more than $5.2 million in cash, the largest seizure of money in a California drug raid, authorities said Thursday.
The raids, which came Wednesday afternoon and early Thursday at two residences in South Gate and Riverside, capped a six-week investigation into a major Mexican heroin-smuggling ring by members of the Orange County Regional Narcotics Suppression task force.
Three Mexican nationals were arrested and charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute heroin.
"The amount of the money and the amount of heroin amazes me," said Capt. Tim Simon, head of the task force. Simon said the Mexican-processed heroin, which tested 73% pure, was probably destined for clients in the Los Angeles area while the cash was headed for points overseas where it could be laundered and moved back to the United States.
Joseph Charles, assistant special agent in charge of U.S. Customs' Los Angeles office, said the seizure represented "a new dawn in the movement of heroin into Southern California. We are seeing greater and greater quantities of it here."
At a press conference in Santa Ana, Charles praised the Orange County narcotics task force and served notice that "the war on drugs is not over yet. It's ongoing."
Charles said the $5.2 million was second only to a Miami case in being the greatest amount of cash ever seized in a U.S. drug raid. The 18 pounds of heroin set a record as the largest amount seized on land in the county. Greater amounts have been confiscated at sea. Federal agents, for example, seized 30 pounds of high-grade heroin last June on a ship in the Los Angeles harbor.
Gov. George Deukmejian also sent his congratulations, calling it "further evidence of how strong cooperation among federal, local and state law enforcement agencies can produce stunning results in our fight against drug trafficking."
It was information obtained from bits of paper and receipts found at the South Gate house Wednesday, where police confiscated $1.3 million, that led them to a house in east Riverside where the bulk of the heroin and cash was discovered in a locked closet.
A warrant was obtained and at 4:30 a.m. a team of eight Orange County narcotics officers and units from the Riverside police descended on the old two-story home just off the Riverside Freeway.
No one was at home when the officers entered and began a thorough room-by-room search, starting with the basement. Upstairs in the master bedroom, Sgt. Bob Sayne, who led the raids, found a locked closet door. Shining his flashlight under the door, he spotted several cardboard boxes similar to the one that held money confiscated the previous afternoon.
"Boxes! I think we found it gentlemen," he said.
When efforts to pick the lock failed, one of Sayne's colleagues ripped the closet door off its hinges with his bare hands. The money came into full view: an estimated $3 million stacked neatly in the corner in piles 3 feet high.
"My God," Sayne said, "take a look at this."
Most of the bills were wrapped in small packages, each one marked with the amount enclosed. Twenty-five of the packets--each one was about the size of a hard-cover book--contained $25,000 each.
Although the raids took place in Riverside and Los Angeles counties, they were carried out by Orange County's drug strike force because it had developed the initial leads and had been following the case for the past six weeks.
2nd Bust in Week
It was the second bust this week for the multiagency narcotics unit, which brings together 12 Orange County law enforcement agencies, the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs and Internal Revenue Service. On Monday agents seized 500 pounds of cocaine and $650,000 in cash at a Norwalk residence.
To illustrate the size of the seizure, police noted that the task force confiscated a total of $5.8 million in cash during the entire 12 months of 1987 compared to the $5.2 million taken in just two days this week.
"This county remains committed that those of us in public office will not rest until a dent is noticed (in drug trafficking) in Orange County and the surrounding areas," said county Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, another dignitary on hand when the seized cash was displayed for the press.
The white powder heroin was packaged in kilo weights. Police said the heroin had a street value of $25 million.
Also confiscated was a 1987 Dodge truck, three new automatic bill-counting machines and two handguns.
Arrested in the raids were Eulogio Quinones Valdez, 32; Delia Caballero Valencia, 28, and Silvia Suarez Madrigal, also 28. The three, all Mexican nationals, were charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute heroin.
According to Simon, the case began to unfold when agents staking out the South Gate house Wednesday afternoon saw Valdez come out the door carrying a cardboard box and walk toward his truck.