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15 arrested in smuggling of pills from L.A. to Mexico

Thousands of tablets of hydrocodone and other drugs were allegedly strapped onto human mules to be sold in Tijuana — primarily to buyers from the U.S. A doctor and pharmacy manager are among those charged.

August 20, 2011|By Lisa Girion and Kate Mather, Los Angeles Times

Fifteen people — including a physician, a pharmacy manager and gang members — have been arrested in an unusual conspiracy to smuggle prescription drugs into Mexico from Los Angeles by strapping thousands of pills onto human mules.

The alleged source of the drugs was Tyron Reece, an Inglewood physician who admitted to regularly writing fraudulent prescriptions for commonly abused medications — including hydrocodone, a powerful painkiller, according to an affidavit filed in federal court in support of a search warrant.

Reece, who was arrested last week on charges of conspiracy to distribute drugs, told investigators that he wrote phony prescriptions for patients he never saw from a list of names presented to him by members of the smuggling ring, the affidavit said. Reece sold the prescriptions for $60, according to an indictment filed in federal court.

Members of the ring allegedly organized by Anthony Wright, 67, filled the prescriptions at Dabney's Pharmacy in South Los Angeles. Pharmacies are required to report to the state attorney general's office every prescription filled for certain drugs that are subject to abuse. But according to officials, Dabney's had been filling the ring's prescriptions since 2009 without reporting them.

Charles Dabney, the manager of the pharmacy, filled about 90 prescriptions a week for the smuggling ring, according to the indictment.

Wright and Dabney were charged with conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, according to the indictment. Dabney was arrested last week, but Wright remained at large, officials said Friday.

The ring smuggled the drugs into Tijuana in an operation that netted more than $400,000 over six months, officials said. Border agents on a number of occasions seized pills from alleged members of the ring attempting to cross into Mexico at San Ysidro, according to the affidavit.

Last November, agents arrested a woman transporting 8,200 hydrocodone pills. About a week later, agents stopped a car at the border and found 3,700 hydrocodone tablets strapped to a purported ring member's abdomen. On another occasion, border agents discovered more than 3,200 prescription pills taped to a smuggler's abdomen.

"It was a unique kind of smuggling operation, one that we haven't seen," said Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which was involved in the joint state-federal investigation.

"We normally see people going to Mexico buying the pharmaceuticals over there and trying to bring them back to the U.S. to sell here," Mack said. "It was unique that this was a case where drugs were actually being taken into Mexico."

She said the pills were sold for $7 to $10 apiece to people who traveled to Tijuana from the U.S. to feed their addictions.

"There's really not a market for those kinds of pain pills for people who live in Mexico," she said. "They are primarily purchased in Mexico by U.S. residents who go over there specifically to buy."

In all, the affidavit said, authorities seized more than 18,000 pills during the operation. About $66,200 in cash has been taken from operators trying to reenter the United States, officials said.

Wright earned $1,000 a day from the smuggling operation, officials said.

"Prescription drug diversion is a growing challenge for law enforcement, and one increasingly coordinated by well-funded criminal organizations," said California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, whose office was involved in the investigation.

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