Federal authorities this week arrested eight people suspected of transporting illegal drugs on private jets out of Van Nuys Airport, U.S. attorney's officials said.
The eight suspected participants in the drug-smuggling ring were charged with multiple federal counts, including conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, including marijuana and cocaine, and money laundering, officials said.
The arrests were the result of a 15-month federal investigation.
According to the criminal complaint, filed on March 26 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, Clarence Rudolph Adolphus, 46, co-owner of SmoothAir Aviation, offered private jet service from Los Angeles to any city, claiming his flights were not subject to police searches and inspections.
"It's very unusual," said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for U.S. Atty. Debra Yang. "I have never seen a case like this where you have a man marketing himself, telling these traffickers they can essentially move their goods without fear because he can avoid inspections and detections of the narcotics."
The investigation began in December 2002 after federal officials seized suitcases and boxes containing 560 pounds of marijuana valued at $1.1 million from a Cleveland-bound private jet that had stopped in Kansas to refuel, according to the complaint.
The next day, $854,000 in cash was seized from passengers arriving at Van Nuys from Cleveland. Both jets were charted by Adolphus' company, according to the complaint.
In June 2003, federal officials began wiretapping telephone conversations between Adolphus and his clients, including Mauricio Torres, 31, of Compton, and Daniel Franco-Acuna, 35, of Norwalk.
Torres and Franco-Acuna, who, along with Adolphus, were arrested Thursday, are suspected of being high-ranking members of a large drug-trafficking organization that has ties to suppliers in Guadalajara, according to federal officials.
On Nov. 11, agents seized more than 20,000 tablets of Ecstasy and more than 345 pounds of marijuana in large suitcases intended for delivery to Atlanta on a private jet arranged for by Adolphus, according to the complaint. But after the plane's pilots smelled marijuana, the drugs were transferred to a pickup truck and subsequently seized.
Richard French, a spokesman for Van Nuys Airport, said there were no records of SmoothAir Aviation being an approved tenant at the field. But, French said, the airport is public and accessible to aircraft that do not belong to approved tenants. Planes at Van Nuys are not regularly searched by airport police, he said.
Also arrested on Thursday were Juan Franco, 33, of Maywood, who allegedly worked for Torres and Franco-Acuna; Pablo Miranda, 38, of Compton and Ramon Martinez, 32, of Echo Park, both of whom were allegedly responsible for delivery of the drugs and money; and Blossom Thorndike, 26, of Moorpark and Marybeth Emberland, 45, of Woodland Hills, both SmoothAir employees who allegedly helped Adolphus funnel and deposit cash from illegal sources. Emberland's husband, Craig Emberland, is a co-owner of and pilot at SmoothAir. He was not arrested.
Both Thorndike and Marybeth Emberland were released on $25,000 bond while the other six suspects were being held without bail.
Federal officials said they were still searching for a ninth suspect, Lester Aubrey Bull, 40, of Diamond Bar, who is suspected of collecting drug proceeds for Franco-Acuna, Torres and Franco.