By Mark Gillispie
Except for a sprawling state park and a unicycle drill team that was once a fixture in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades, Newbury Twp. in rural northeast Ohio is not known for much.
Last week, it became the site of the biggest drug seizure in the history of one of Ohio’s richest counties.
Geauga sheriff’s deputies on June 11 ventured down a 100-yard driveway off a secluded cul-de-sac to serve a search warrant on what they thought might be a small narcotics operation. What they found far exceeded their expectations.
Deputies seized 6 pounds of pure crystal methamphetamine, a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of black tar heroin, 100 pounds of marijuana, $128,000 in cash and 10 guns, most of which were loaded and kept at the ready inside bedrooms and other parts of the house. Most of the drugs and money were stored behind a false wall in the basement. The drugs had a street value of about $1.5 million.
Investigators arrested a husband and wife who had been renting the upscale home for several years along with two other men, said Chief Scott Hildenbrand of the Geauga County sheriff’s department.
According to Hildebrand, the case in quiet Newbury Twp. began June 3, when a deputy sheriff on routine patrol noticed a beat-up panel truck parked in the middle of a narrow road called Park View Drive. He stopped and asked people gathered around the truck if anything was wrong. They told him the truck had broken down and help was on the way. They were also evasive.
The deputy left, but did not go far. Hidden from view, he watched someone jump into the truck and drive it to the house, Hildenbrand said.
Eight days later, sheriff’s deputies, armed with a search warrant, raided the five-bedroom, 2 ½-bath home.
Hildenbrand said the suspects and their expensive rental dispels any myths about drug dealers keeping a low financial profile by living in poorer neighborhoods. Two luxury cars, an older model Jaguar and a Cadillac Escalade, were parked next to the house, Hildenbrand said. Newbury Twp. is about 30 miles east of Cleveland, a rural bedroom community in a county that is Ohio’s second-richest per capita.
The suspects have been charged with felony possession of drugs, although more charges are likely. The husband and wife are Dominic Bangera, 43, and Jacqueline Sanchez, 36. Also charged were Raymond Utt, 36, and Omar Solano-Lopez, 21. Bangera is a British citizen. Solano-Lopez is a Mexican citizen in the U.S. illegally, Hildenbrand said.
Utt’s attorney could not be reached. An attorney for Sanchez said he had no comment Monday. It’s unclear who represents Bangera and Solano-Lopez.
Bangera has a criminal record in Ohio for cultivating marijuana and Sanchez has a fleeing and eluding conviction, Hildenbrand said. While Utt does not have a criminal record, Solano-Lopez has a long rap sheet in California.
Hildenbrand said it was possible the operation was connected to a Mexican cartel. The people living in the house had been traveling back and forth to California and Solano-Lopez recently arrived in Newbury Twp. from California, Hildenbrand said. Crystal methamphetamine and black-tar heroin are primarily produced in Mexico by the cartels.
When the deputies saw what they had during the raid, they called in members of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force.
“We thought it was a little smaller operation,” Hildenbrand said.
Geno Corley, resident agent in charge of the Cleveland office of the DEA, declined to comment about the case except to praise the Geauga sheriff’s department.
“They did some outstanding work,” Corley said.