Local drug trade ‘bigger problem than we thought’

Law enforcement seeks to keep pace as drugs come in and cash goes out in new ways.

Drug trade in Dayton area

The Mexico-to-U.S. drug trade brings in an estimated $64 billion annually from the sale of heroin, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and ecstasy. The U.S. consumes more than 70 percent of the world’s illicit drugs.

  • Dayton is a "source city" for distribution due to its proximity of Interstates 70 and 75.
  • The Sinaloa Cartel and the La Familia Michoacana Cartel are the two main Mexican drug cartels that control the drug trade in Montgomery County.
  • As much as 50 percent of the Montgomery County Jail population are either booked on drug charges or have had prior bookings involving drugs.
  • In 2015, 51 percent of the 1,325 individuals booked into the jail were from heroin-related arrests, with 16 percent of arrests involving cocaine/crack and 10 percent involving illegal prescription pills.

Source: Montgomery County Sheriff's Office

Miami Valley Bulk Smuggling Task Force

In November 2015, the task force seized $450,000, five handguns and 20 pounds of fentanyl — one of the largest seizures in the country. The task force, formed in July 2013, has arrested 269 people and confiscated:

  • $4,426,854
  • 89 pounds of heroin
  • 1,253 pounds of marijuana
  • 64.6 pounds of meth
  • 74 pounds of cocaine
  • 137 grams of crack
  • 4,421 prescription pills
  • 90 firearms

Source: Montgomery County Sheriff's Office

Meth arriving through the U.S. mail. Heroin brought in via the digestive tract of a dealer’s drug “mule.” Cocaine stuffed inside a child’s doll.

In a region already labeled as the country's top spot for opiate overdoses, powerful cartels use a variety of means to ensure an uninterrupted flow of drugs to what one DEA task force officer labeled a "destination city" for drug couriers.

And when drugs come in, money goes out — through gift cards and small bank deposits, in hidden compartments in cars or in duffel bags on a Greyhound bus.

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"The prices here are so cheap. That's the scary thing," said Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer, adding that the Miami Valley Bulk Smuggling Task Force has seized nearly $4.5 million and drugs worth millions more in three years. "As much as we're doing, the prices are not going up. So, it doesn't look like we're affecting the supply at all.

“That means we have a bigger problem than we thought.”

The Dayton Daily News examined hundreds of documents in several cases in Dayton’s U.S. District Court that shed light on the ever-evolving Miami Valley drug trade.

>> RELATED: Pair sentenced in federal fentanyl case

“Whether it’s U.S. Mail, FedEx, UPS, it’s coming in in every facet you could possibly imagine,” said Montgomery County Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Brem, the commander of the bulk task force. “If we import it, it’s coming with it. Whether it’s fake vegetables, fire extinguishers, water heaters, it doesn’t matter. Animals. Child’s dolls.”

Cocaine shipped in dolls

According to a criminal complaint by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) special agent Matthew Gallaghaer, information was received May 2 about a suspicious shipment from Los Angeles addressed to 205 Salem Ave.

On May 4, law enforcement “located two packages hidden within dolls inside a box” that tested positive for cocaine, weighing a total of 2.4 kilograms. A controlled delivery was made at the address — an automotive garage that police have long monitored — and then a search warrant was served.

When agents entered the business, several people tried to escape via the back door. Kevin Koob and Keon Rutledge were arrested and booked into jail. Neither has been indicted; the government and defense attorneys agreed to push back court hearings. Both face charges of possession with intent to distribute in excess of 500 grams of cocaine.

Koob allowed investigators to search his duplex at 861 and 863 Riverview Terrace in Dayton, where investigators found two firearms, ammunition, gallon-sized containers of marijuana, a baggie of suspected heroin and a bullet-proof vest.

They also located a doll with its back cut open, consistent with the doll used to transport cocaine to Salem Avenue.

‘Internal couriers’

DEA task force officer Jorge DelRio wrote in a criminal complaint that Dayton has "been a destination city for multiple internal couriers and further continues to have a significant end-user market for heroin."

Internal couriers swallow drugs wrapped in latex, condoms or other material to be recovered after a bowel movement.

“Hopefully, within 24 hours you’ve landed, you’ve gotten to a hotel or an apartment or a house,” Brem said of internal couriers’ mindset. “They start taking laxatives. They stay there for another 24 hours until they extract it. Once it’s extracted, it’s cleaned up and given to a source to supply here in the county.”

On May 11, investigators saw Jose DeJesus Aval0s-Diaz arrive at Dayton’s airport after leaving from San Diego. The complaint said Aval0s-Diaz took a cab to a mobile home at 1926 Hummingbird Circle in Middletown.

The suspected drug dealer who lives there consented to a search of that property and 1921 Nightingale Drive, a short walk away. In that mobile home, law enforcement found rubber gloves, plastic bags, vacuum seal bags and Miralax.

“I know that, in attempting to secure the heroin pellets from inside internal body carriers, drug dealers used the aforementioned items,” DelRio wrote.

The complaint said Aval0s-Diaz denied being a drug “mule,” but consented to go to Atrium Medical Center in Middletown. With that consent and a search warrant, a scan of his abdomen revealed an item in digestive tract consistent with a heroin pellet.

Aval0s-Diaz has been indicted for conspiracy and intent to distribute heroin.

Meth in the mail

On May 23, Manny Vargas-Barajas was sentenced to two years in federal prison after pleading guilty to possession with intent to distribute crystal methamphetamine.

In August 2015, a postal inspector intercepted a suspicious package sent from San Jose, Calif., to 6512 Rolling Glen Drive in Huber Heights, according to a criminal complaint written by DEA special agent Steve Lucas. The package included four pounds of crystal meth.

Police stopped two men in a truck who picked up the package after a controlled delivery with fake meth. After being stopped, a cooperating defendant said the package was to be delivered to Vargas.

That exchange took place in Fairborn. Six minutes later during a traffic stop, Vargas said, “I’m in trouble. You got me.”

“We’re still a source city. They bring (drugs) right to here,” Plummer said, adding that 105 gangs varying in size from a handful of members to more than 200 operate in Montgomery County. “We see local gang members come and meet them and pick up their kilo that they take back to their neighborhoods.”

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office has deputies on both Federal Bureau of Investigations and DEA task forces. Brem said the cooperation helps when it comes to tips and techniques, but much of the work done is under cover.

“A lot of it is boots on the ground,” Brem said. “So these guys, they’re in bus hubs, they’re in the airport, they’re at the hotels. They see really what’s going on first-hand out there.”

Bags of cash

DEA special agent Steve Lucas wrote in a criminal complaint that Oscar Estrada was spotted getting off a Greyhound bus with five bags at the Trotwood hub on May 3. Lucas wrote that Estrada “appeared nervous and used his phone several times.”

Police saw Estrada take a taxi to 928 Chelsea Ave. in Dayton to meet another man. The two drove to Chase Bank at 1078 Patterson Road. Lucas wrote that Estrada tried to deposit about $2,000 into an account, but he provided an incorrect account number.

After a traffic stop, Estrada was found with $200,000 in five bags of cash and 269 grams of marijuana. Estrada as been federally indicted on five counts related to the drug trade.

Lucas wrote that he “also has interviewed cooperating defendants who have stated that drug money is routinely being sent from the Dayton, Ohio, Greyhound station to the Southwest border for transport into Mexico.”

Brem said some suspects tape money to their bodies or hide it in compartments in vehicles. “Whether it’s Greyhound, highway, airplane, a lot of different methods there,” he said. “And they also do conceal it back in the cars that the drugs came in.”

Cartel homes, fentanyl and violence

Plummer said big seizures of drugs and money are down, so he suspects drug traffickers are changing methods.

“We’re now getting cartel members buying homes in our communities,” Plummer said. “They’re getting away from hotels because we’re whacking them.”

DEA statistics show Ohio seizures of fentanyl have grown from 6.7 grams in 2014 to 102 grams in 2015 to an unofficial 2,168.7 grams so far in 2016, but special agent Rich Isaacson said those numbers don’t take into account other agencies’ efforts.

Plummer said his office is doing well with what he calls limited resources. He said prescription pill addiction and users switching to heroin and fentanyl has fueled gang-on-gang crime.

“It’s really increased our violence,” Plummer said. “The gangs know who is selling dope, who’s making money, and then they target each other.

“They’ll go in and they’ll rob a house, and they’ll kill whoever’s in the way, take the drugs and proceeds out. And, of course, when the police get there, no one’s seen anything. Then the next couple nights, they’ll be another body fall due to retaliation.”

Brem said that besides the usual drug flow from Colombia, Mexico and Afghanistan, synthetic fentanyl is being produced in China and sent to the United States, which he said accounts for 70 percent of the world’s illicit drug use.

"They're undercutting everybody else, so it's coming in a lot cheaper," Brem said. "Which is really scary, because it could make the perfect storm."

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