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Probe of Major Meth Ring Nets 22 in State

Crime: Investigation leads to 100-plus arrests nationwide and seizure of methamphetamine ingredient.

January 11, 2002|GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal authorities Thursday announced the arrests of more than 100 people in 12 cities nationwide--including Los Angeles, Fresno and Riverside--for allegedly smuggling tons of a methamphetamine-producing chemical from Canada to California.

The arrests and the seizure of enough pseudoephedrine to produce 18,000 pounds of methamphetamine represent a marked expansion in a three-year investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement agencies, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

"This is an extraordinarily significant step in allowing us to shut down this hopefully last supply chain for this precursor chemical for methamphetamine," DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson said in Washington, where officials announced the arrests.

The investigation, dubbed Operation Mountain Express, originally targeted U.S. companies and individuals illegally supplying methamphetamine producers with pseudoephedrine, used in most over-the-counter cold medicines.

When those arrests dried up domestic sources of pseudoephedrine, authorities say, drug traffickers turned to illegal suppliers in Canada, with the chemical shipped to Chicago and Detroit before being transported to meth producers in California.

Nationwide, Hutchinson and other law enforcement officials said, the federal investigation led to the arrests Thursday of 58 people and the seizure of 96 automobiles, businesses and homes. Recently, authorities said, 67 additional people were arrested in connection with supplying California drug producers with pseudoephedrine from Canada. Authorities also said they have seized more than $2 million in cash.

In Los Angeles, a federal indictment unsealed Thursday charged 36 people with drug trafficking in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The Inland Empire is "considered to be the methamphetamine capital of the world," the U.S. attorney's office said in a statement. Twenty-two defendants live in California, and 16 were in custody as of Thursday.

The 25-count indictment alleges a conspiracy in which the defendants obtained huge quantities of pseudoephedrine, knowing that it would be manufactured into methamphetamine.

If convicted, most of the Los Angeles area defendants would face mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years in federal prison, and some could spend life in prison without parole, authorities said.

"Today's indictment demonstrates that we will work diligently to cut off new supply routes and to choke off the chemicals that have made methamphetamine such a scourge in the Inland Empire," said John S. Gordon, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles.

In Washington, U.S. Customs Service Commissioner Robert C. Bonner said the investigation should significantly curb methamphetamine trafficking throughout the United States. The huge pseudoephedrine seizures in this case "prevented thousands of pounds of meth from being manufactured and sold on the streets of our country," he said.

Though some defendants nationwide are of Middle Eastern descent and some are in the United States illegally, federal authorities here and in Washington said their investigation had turned up no indication that the money used in the drug trafficking operation was funded by or for terrorist activity.

"As a matter of course, we always look at where the money flows," Hutchinson said. "But there is no evidence of any link to terrorism."

Other cities where arrests were made by federal agents were Carlsbad, Cleveland, Houston, Las Vegas, Phoenix and San Diego.

Since the federal investigation began in 1999 with domestic supplies of pseudoephedrine, authorities have arrested more than 300 people and seized more than 30 tons of the chemical, as well as $16 million in U.S. currency.

The 16 California defendants already in custody or arrested Thursday include Carlos Aguayo, 40, of Ontario; Khaled Ahmad, 23, of Jordan; Stephen Almasri, 41, of Riverside; Amjad Ayeh, 34, of San Bernardino; Rasheed Aziz, 29, of Israel; and Rudy Barreras, 31, jailed in Orange County. Ahmad and Aziz are suspected of being illegal immigrants.

Also arrested or in custody are Christian Boyd, 36, and Patrick Boyd, 35, both of Pinon Hills; Nidal Hamayel, 45, of Moreno Valley; Mohammad Kahalah, 32, of Highland; Tony Musitef, 50, of Barstow; Akram Omar, 53, of Lake Elsinore; Alfonso Pelayo, 41, of Huntington Park; Raheef Sanam, 39, address unknown; Khaled Shoukhah, 38, in custody in a Los Angeles County jail; and Fernando Valle, 57, in custody at the Tehachapi prison.

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