Major marijuana trafficking ring between Arizona and Dallas busted
A joint effort of local, state and federal law enforcement has dismantled a major marijuana trafficking organization between Mexico, Arizona and Dallas, announced U.S. Attorney John M. Bales.
More than $1.7 million in cash and assets were seized and 17 individuals from the area were convicted on drug trafficking, firearms and other violations, through the investigation that dates back to fall 2010, Bales explained Thursday at a press conference.
The conspirators, which Bales dubbed the "Rufus Rodgers Marijuana Group" in light of central conspirator Rufus Delane Rodgers, were transporting thousands of pounds of high-grade marijuana from Phoenix, Ariz., and Tucson, Ariz., to DFW via a horse trailer with hidden compartments, then distributing the marijuana in the Metroplex. They used the same trailer to transport the money earned from marijuana sales back to Arizona to buy more marijuana, Bales said.
In October 2010, a Wylie resident told Wylie police about the trafficking organization, who in turn told the Collin County Sheriff's Office. The county contacted the Texas Department of Public Safety, who reached out to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The investigation then ensued.
Authorities discovered that a group of individuals was using a ranch in an unincorporated area of south Dallas County to operate the distribution organization. Conspirators used natural and man-made cavities in a high-end horse trailer to load up to 1,100 pounds of marijuana in Arizona before taking it to DFW for other conspirators to sell.
"The organization made numerous trips back and forth, and they actually transported real horses in the trailer to disguise the purpose of the trips," Bales said. "They'd have the horse feed, the whole nine yards -- it looked like cowboys moving horses from Arizona to Texas."
In December 2010, after gathering intelligence and surveillance at the ranch, agents determined the conspirators were organizing a return trip to Arizona, "presumably loaded with cash to buy more marijuana," Bales said. When agents executed a search warrant, they arrested four conspirators and found nearly $700,000 cash hidden in the horse trailer, drug ledgers, and two rifles and a handgun on the trailer's front seat. They then executed search warrants at other residences and a nearby storage unit in south Dallas County, where they recovered more firearms and an additional $900,000 hidden in five safes.
Nine of the conspirators were indicted that month on conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana. Two of them, Rodgers (semi-automatic handgun, .223-caliber rifle and Norinco SKS rifle) and Joe Dell Sterling (semi-automatic handgun), were also indicted for possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. All but one defendant pleaded guilty, thus only one case went to trial, Bales said.
"The case was so well-organized, and the day in December when they ran the search warrants was so well done, that, quite frankly, (the conspirators) were overwhelmed by the evidence," he said. "That's what we like to do, we like to make it almost impossible for them to go to trial."
Prosecutors and agents at Thursday's press conference said conspirators admitted to trafficking close to 60,000 pounds of marijuana through the interstate transports. Bales said that though investigators don't know the exact origin of the marijuana -- whether it came from Mexican drug cartels -- they do know it came from Mexico.
"The signs of the difficulty that we have before us are obvious, I think," he said. "The very fact of the carnage in Mexico and the wealth of the cartels demonstrates that we are not catching everything ... we can't prosecute our way out of the problem.
"The demand that Americans have for the drugs here is fueling this situation," he added. "We're putting more people in prison than ever before, these types of seizures are happening, not routinely, but regularly, we are really hitting them where they really live, and yet there's still so much more to do because the appetite for the drugs seems insatiable."
Sterling and Rodgers were sentenced to 20 years and 11.5 years in federal prison, respectively. Sentencing for the other seven convicted on drug trafficking charges ranged from five years probation to a 10-year federal prison term. An investigation into the possible conspirators in Arizona is ongoing, authorities said Thursday.
Texas DPS, Wylie PD, Dallas County Sheriff's Office, Collin County Sheriff's Office and Dallas County District Attorney's office all received a share of 80 percent of the money seized in the investigation. The remaining 20 percent will be deposited into the U.S. Government's Asset Forfeiture Fund.
"This investigation highlights the level of cooperation between local and federal partners, and because of this great cooperation, 17 criminals are in jail and your streets and communities are a little bit safer today," said Lt. Col. David Baker, Texas DPS Deputy Director. "We still have a lot of work to do."