Drug crackdown

2012-03-25T05:30:00Z 2012-03-25T09:35:11Z Drug crackdownBy Emily Gillespie, Corvallis Gazette-Times Corvallis Gazette Times

How Icebreaker 2 investigators waged a war on a three-county drug operation

In 2007, investigators claimed to dismantle the “biggest drug-trafficking operation in the history of Benton County” when they executed dozens of search warrants leading to 20 arrests. They called their bust “Ice Breaker.”

Five years later — almost to the day — investigators again attempted to dismantle the organization, which appeared to have started up just months after their initial raid. Using similar tactics, but now having more practice, police say that this time around their operation was more successful.

That sequel — dubbed Icebreaker 2 — reached a climax on Tuesday, March 13, when investigators executed more than three dozen search warrants.

Over the course of the week that followed, 27 people were arrested for their roles in a drug organization that prosecutors say was moving four pounds of methamphetamine and two pounds of heroin through the mid-valley on any given week.

While investigators have been reluctant to talk in much detail about the investigation, a 184-page court affidavit filed to obtain the search warrants offers a window into details about the case.

The affidavit explains how informants and undercover police officers requested large amounts of drugs and then monitored the organization’s activity. And it shows how law enforcement came to believe that three men were at the top of the operation, acting as suppliers and coordinating the distribution of heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine to drug dealers around the mid-valley.

Where it started

Department of Justice Special Agent Mark Wells, who investigated the Ice Breaker — it was two words the first time around — case five years ago, reopened another case in June 2011. That was after he received tips that the Benton County Drug Trafficking Organization, a name coined by law enforcement to describe the drug ring, was back in operation. And the investigation led him to a familiar site.

When the first Ice Breaker case unfolded, Wells identified La Poderosa, a Mexican store at 1411 N.W. Ninth St., as the center for the drug exchange business. The store, along with a Mexican store in Independence and an auto body shop south of Corvallis, served as a front for drug trafficking and money laundering. In that first Ice Breaker operation, law enforcement executed dozens of search warrants in March 2007, resulting in the arrest of 17 people charged with racketeering and money laundering.

Just three months after these raids, the store reopened under new owners and a new name: La Azteca Video y Musica. But the new owners, Rafael Ayala Lucio and Rosa Munoz, already had been on law enforcement’s radar. Wells noted in the affidavit that during the initial Ice Breaker investigation, Lucio and Munoz had been investigated, but their involvement could not be proven and so they never were charged.

In a Gazette-Times article published in June 2007 when La Azteca reopened, Munoz said: “We in NO WAY condone the illegal activity that allegedly took place at La Poderosa. It is not only damaging to the individuals and families directly involved, but reflects badly on all Latinos.”

But Department of Justice investigators weren’t buying that. So when they needed a way to learn about the new drug organization, they sent a criminal informant to La Azteca.

Although law enforcement had noticed a lot of activity around the Mexican store just months after the first Ice Breaker case, police said that it wasn’t until June 2011 that they got enough tips to justify a resource-intensive investigation.

“By simply having an observation of one thing, you can’t drop all of your other cases,” said Capt. Jon Sassaman, who takes over as police chief June 1. “If they were back in full business, we needed to do some coordination with other agencies and make sure we had resources in place for that large investigation.”

So the investigation began in June 2011 and as it continued, the affidavit states, the agents came to believe that the store was the center of the operation. And, they said, Lucio and Munoz “act as ‘brokers’ by matching drug dealers with prospective customers,” according to the affidavit.

The court documents allege that the two “are intimately involved with the direction and operation of the drug trafficking,” and that their store is a “safe and controlled environment to discuss drug business, deal with drug customers and launder drug-related proceeds.”

When the store was searched on March 13, evidence seized included drug records, scales and cash.

How it worked

While La Azteca was described as a connection spot, Lucio and Munoz were not the ones running the scheme, the court documents say.

The “top person” in the drug trafficking pyramid is Rogelio Gonzalez-Martinez, 36, of Lebanon, Benton County Chief Deputy District Attorney Chris Stringer said in court recently.

The court records allege that every time someone raised a question about deep discounts or particularly large amounts of drugs, Gonzalez-Martinez would be called.

Law enforcement monitored phone calls that Gonzalez-Martinez made to a man named “Pollo,” who had a Mexican phone number. In the affidavit, police do not identify Pollo, but say that the two discussed drug sales, smuggling and packing methods, trafficking routes and law enforcement efforts, the affidavit says.

Gonzalez-Martinez also went to Mexico for two weeks, and when he returned, he called his girlfriend Lorena Gonzalez-Pulido, 33, of Lebanon “to make sure the garage was clear so he could pull right into the garage,” according to the affidavit. Surveillance on the couple’s residence at 1156 W. Oak Ave. reported that he did just that when he returned.

Gonzalez-Pulido was arrested last week and charged with unlawful delivery of cocaine and heroin, but the charges were dismissed because “co-defendant Rogelio Gonzalez-Martinez has accepted responsibility for the drugs found at their residence,” according to court records.

Sassaman said police developed a “strong suspicion” that the Benton County Drug Trafficking Organization was getting the drugs from Mexico, but they could not prove it.

“Being able to confirm something like that from Oregon is often difficult,” Sassaman said.

Working directly with Rogelio Gonzalez-Martinez were two men: Abel Gonzalez-Martinez, Rogelio’s brother, 31, of Corvallis and Juventino Santibanez-Castro, 24, of Corvallis. Abel Gonzalez-Martinez and Santibanez-Castro both made numerous phone calls to drug dealers in the area, and acted as “runners” by supplying the dealers with the drugs.

Authorities discovered that the trio stored the drugs at various locations in Benton and Linn counties. Hiding spots included residences, farms where the men worked, and logging roads.

Authorities learned all of that by making a series of controlled buys. Criminal informants and undercover police would request a large amount of drugs and then monitor where either Abel Gonzalez-Martinez or Santibanez-Castro would drive before meeting for the deal.

Most of the locations are rural, wooded areas, including:several logging roads off of Middle Ridge Road south of Lebanon; 30912 Peterson Road, Philomath, where Santibanez-Castro worked at a farm; and the 23000 block of Decker Road, near a Forest Service gate south of Philomath.

At one time in the investigation, Santibanez-Castro tells the undercover police officer that the delay in delivering the drugs occurred because “when he went to retrieve the drugs, the gophers had been all over the area and the marker was gone,” the affidavit states.

Search warrants

Wells noted in the affidavit that throughout the investigation, when a drug dealer would get arrested by police — not related to the investigation but because of a traffic stop or other police involvement — members of the drug organization would quickly get rid of their cell phones, destroying evidence that would tie them to the crimes.

Because of this, Wells requested that the search warrants occur “simultaneously in an effort to avoid co-conspirators being tipped off to the law enforcement activity and having the ability to dispose of evidence.” He also requested that the search warrants be executed “under the cover of darkness” so that “officers can more safely approach the residences.”

So in the early hours of March 13, law enforcement from 14 agencies assisted in executing 47 of search warrants in Linn, Benton and Marion counties. They searched residences of the three main drug suppliers as well as their customers — whom authorities identified as drug dealers around the three counties.

“It was important for us to arrest the whole organization and break it down and dissolve it,” Sassaman said.

What they found in the raid was a total of 6.34 pounds of methamphetamine, 13.11 pounds of heroin and 3.18 pounds of cocaine. Law enforcement also seized $7,058.79 in cash and 28 firearms.

Another part of the search warrant included analyzing bank transactions for La Azteca. They learned that Lucio and Munoz were making large deposits on two consecutive days, both in amounts less than $10,000, but together totaled more than $10,000, according to court records. Federal rules require cash transactions exceeding $10,000 be reported to the Internal Revenue Service.

This occurred at least 16 times over the course of the two years, court record states.

Some perspective

When comparing the two Icebreaker cases, Sassaman said it is difficult to call one “bigger” than the other.

“(Icebreaker 2) is certainly as big. The first case that we did in 2007 was a first for this region, a first of its kind,” he said. “This being the second go-round, we were able to apply learned lessons and be more efficient in the investigation.”

Sassaman said that applying these tactics enabled the agencies to arrest more of those responsible for the disbursement of drugs in the community. A total of 20 people were arrested in 2007, and 27 more were arrested in connection to Icebreaker 2.

“We had a successful outcome,” he said. “We know that a pound of drugs translates into perhaps two pounds or three pounds of drugs as it gets cut.”

So, he said, the 6.3 pounds of methamphetamine that police seized translates to roughly 18 pounds once it’s distributed to users.

“It equates to $1 to $3.5 million in street value — and that’s probably conservative,” he said. “For me, I’m sitting here thinking, this is a lot of drugs ... this is somewhere in the neighborhood of 150,000 to 200,000 highs.”

Sassaman added that by taking away the 20 pounds of pure illegal narcotics, the investigation curbed a large problem that contributes to other crime.

“These are drugs that frankly, they ruin people’s lives,” he said. “It ruins individual lives, ruins families, and it ruins futures.”

Emily Gillespie can be reached at 541-758-9548 or emily.gillespie@gazettetimes.com.

Copyright 2014 Corvallis Gazette Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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