An investigation that started in March with money falling from a hidden compartment in a truck ended last week as apparently the largest drug bust in Indiana history.
More than 5 tons of marijuana and more than $4.3 million are now in law enforcement hands, with four men in the Marion County Jail on charges that could put them in prison for life.
The size of the bust has law enforcement confident that they have, at least for now, halted a large drug distribution operation in Indianapolis and probably affected a Mexican drug cartel.
“This is going to have a profound impact,” said First[..]istant U.S. Attorney Josh Minkler, who, along with other federal and Marion County law enforcement officials, detailed the coup Sunday to The Indianapolis Star.
“This is one of those rare cases where you get both the drug proceeds and the actual product, so this organization has obviously suffered a significant setback, if not been eliminated entirely by a seizure of this nature,” he said.
U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett said the financial hit to the Mexican cartel, which authorities believe was the originator of the marijuana and the ultimate destination of the cash, is far more than the $4.3 million seized here. While the bulk value of the marijuana — 10,505 pounds, or 5.25 tons — is about $5 million, Hogsett said, the street value “could be upwards of 10 times that amount.”
“Even being conservative, the cartel is not only out $4.3 million in proceeds that was on its way, but they’ve now lost the possibility of maybe $50 million in proceeds from the distribution of drugs,” Hogsett said. “This was significant because we got them both coming and going. The money was going, and we interdicted the drugs that were coming.”
Although there have been larger drug busts in the nation — including 25 tons of marijuana seized in a New York home in 2009 — Dennis Wishern, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s[..]istant special agent in charge here, said he knew of no larger seizure than this in Indiana.
“A half-ton or a ton is considered significant,” Wishern said. “(There’s been) nothing like five and a quarter tons.”
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Most of the money seized eventually will be distributed to local law enforcement agencies, Hogsett said — meaning the cartel’s cash will be paying for police to continue to crack down on it for years to come.
It took a lot of hard police work, he and Minkler said, by about 20 agents from the federal
DEA and the Metro Drug unit, which is a cooperative effort of the Indianapolis Metropolitan, Carmel and Lawrence police departments, the Hamilton and Hancock County sheriff’s departments and the Marion County prosecutor’s office.
But it started with a tip that led detectives to be watching on March 6 as a white semitrailer truck left a Mexican grocery store on Indianapolis’ Northwestside.
When a detective saw the truck commit a traffic violation as it headed west on I-70, agents stopped it.
A police dog indicated it detected the smell of narcotics, and although none was found, police did notice something else: fresh rivets on the ceiling.
Prying them open, something fell out: money. Lots of it. In fact, more than $2.6 million in stacks that were vacuum-sealed, wrapped in dryer sheets and carbon paper, and bound with black electrical tape, with numbers written on them by gold markers.
The driver — who was not arrested — said he’d been hired in a Mexican border town to drive to Indianapolis, collect money and return it to McAllen, Texas. He told police the money had been given to him outside the grocery store by a Hispanic man driving a black H3 Hummer.
“That was the only lead,” Minkler said.
And, as it turns out, there are lots of black Hummers in this area.
One belonged to 26-year-old Jairo Ramirez, a Hispanic legally in the U.S. and living in a quiet residential neighborhood on Indianapolis’ Southeastside. Detectives watched Ramirez but didn’t know whether this was the right Hummer.
Until Sept. 28. That’s the day an Arkansas state trooper stopped a pickup that turned out to have more than $581,000 hidden in it, all wrapped identically to the cash seized here in March. Inside the truck was also an Indianapolis hotel receipt and an unusual metal rack used to transport granite.
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Police had seen that rack the day before — sitting in Ramirez’s driveway.
That, Minkler said, is when they knew they had the right Hummer, the right suspect and the right path to follow.
That path led agents, as they followed Ramirez, to two other Hispanic men: Julio Cesar Castaneda, 36, who apparently is here illegally, and Efren Perez, 20, who is legally in the U.S.
Starting on Oct. 11, Minkler said, agents kept the three under constant surveillance.
“I mean, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, these (agents) are out in horrible weather, n@sty, rainy. That’s staying up without sleep. That’s drinking a lot of coffee in the car, and you can’t get out of the car, so the coffee cup has sort of a utilitarian purpose,” he said.
They watched as Ramirez went to an office supply store to buy six packs of carbon paper — the same duplicating paper that was used to wrap the cash found in March and in Arkansas. And they watched as Castaneda and Perez went to a warehouse on the city’s Far Westside.
On the morning of Oct.17, police took a drug-sniffing dog to the door of the warehouse, and it indicated it smelled narcotics. Armed with a search warrant, they returned to find a bonanza inside: bales and bales of marijuana wrapped in green plastic, along with hundreds of boxes of powdered detergent, used by drug dealers to try to conceal the scent.
Agents then left the warehouse and waited. Late that night, after seeing a minivan drive up to it and leave, agents stopped the vehicle, finding 600 pounds of marijuana inside.
The driver of the minivan, Tomas Ruiz Toledo, a 29-year-old undocumented Hispanic, was arrested. Shortly before midnight, Castaneda and Perez were arrested at their hotel, and shortly after midnight, Ramirez was arrested at his home. None was armed, or resisted.
Authorities say they later found a total of $1.1 million more in Ramirez’s home and another residence.
The suspects, who have asked for a public defender to represent them, were arraigned before a federal magistrate Oct. 20 and are being held in the Marion County Jail. They are due back in court Thursday, and Minkler said the federal government will ask that they stay in jail, with no bond. Their country of origin could not be immediately determined Sunday.
So far, each faces one charge of conspiring to possess with intent to distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana, though Minkler expects other charges might be filed once the formal indictments are delivered. If convicted, they face a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison and a maximum of life behind bars.
Additional arrests may be made, with state charges filed.
Hogsett said the record-breaking bust was not made public until now as both local and federal agents continued the investigation, including counting the money found in the warehouse, vehicles and home; seizing[..]ets — including that Hummer, a Corvette and a Dodge Charger; and beginning the process of trying to find out the one big question remaining: Who were these guys working for?
“I’d love it if this investigation could go straight back to Mexico,” Minkler said, “and we could indict a member of the cartel. That would certainly be the goal.”