Tuesday, July 7, 2009

More From the Frontier: Largest Northern New York Drug Bust Ever

Things have changed along the Northern New York border over the past decade. People have always smuggled things across — alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, immigrants, guns, depending on cycles in the underground economy — but marijuana, once mostly a southern border import, now streams into the U.S. from Quebec.

And there are more federal law-enforcement officers on this side of the line than ever, trying to stop it and other contraband.

A phalanx of officials from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Customs and Border Protection Office of Air & Marine, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), other Homeland Security personnel and the U.S. Attorney’s Office joined with local and state law enforcement Tuesday at the DEA’s newly built two-story Plattsburgh headquarters to announce they had broken a billion-dollar marijuana smuggling ring, wrapping up the largest drug case in the North Country ever, the DEA says.

Police are charging 13 men, from Montreal to Boston to Florida, with felony drug offenses for allegedly conspiring to import and distribute tons of weed across the eastern United States over the past few years.

“Eleven years ago when I first became involved in criminal prosecutions on the northern border, DEA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office were two essentially unknown federal agencies in Franklin County,” said Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne. “Today they’re partners in dismantling a 300-pound-a-day marijuana operation, an operation which led to movement in excess of $250 million a year in marijuana over the past four years.

“What I’ve seen is we went from one DEA agent, who I was really happy when he would come over and work a case with us, to this building we’re in today,” Champagne continued. “And I think back then, yes, was there smuggling? Absolutely. But what’s occurred is we’ve gone from an intelligence-gathering stage to fully executing something like this, something that takes out an entire network. It’s really a growth that I could only have dreamed of ten years ago for the North Country.”

DEA and local law enforcement joined Champagne in Franklin County last week to announce arrests in a different, $25-million marijuana importation ring.

“Although all the locals knew what was going on for years and years, and I remember as a kid everyone talking about the smuggling in Malone and the area, now there are the resources to assist,” Champagne said.

Police say the marijuana came across the border in two places. The first has been implicated in smuggling since boundaries were established: Akwesasne, the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation that overlaps the U.S./Canada border on the St. Lawrence River, including several islands. Police say 35-year-old Richard Todd Adams, aka “Frank,” coordinated shipments across the river to his compound in Snye, Quebec, which is on the reservation and contiguous to New York tribal land. Adams is indicted but remains at large. Asked by a reporter how police plan to deal with perennial smuggling via Akwesasne and related sovereignty and jurisdictional issues, Assistant U.S. Attorney Grant Jaquith was vague, stating, “We are very vigilant when it comes to the exploitation of that area.” Investigators don’t give many details of their surveillance methods, but the Customs aviation unit provided high-aerial photographs of the Snye compound, and officers on the ground kept tabs on couriers, who traveled with “blockers,” drivers of other vehicles who intentionally broke traffic laws to distract police.

The second point of entry was described as a “secluded wooded area” just north of Churubusco, near the Clinton/Franklin County line in the vicinity of Frontier and Lost Nation Roads. Police would not comment on who owns the land or how drugs were moved across the border. Twenty-eight-year-old Anthony Plata of Montreal was in charge of smuggling through that point, they allege.

Police did not offer many details about how the bust actually went down, and whether any of the marijuana was distributed in this region. But they said they arrested the alleged ringleader, 23-year-old Steven Sarti of Montreal, in Vermont on June 17. They executed warrants in the arrest of eight other people today. In addition to Adams, two other indicted suspects have not yet been arrested.

Officials Tuesday seemed to prefer to focus on sending a message.

“It’s easy to forget in these idyllic surroundings and friendly communities and with our close relationship with our Canadian neighbors that there are people who wish harm or who are so interested in lining their own pockets that they don’t care what harm they cause others — and exploit this area to move large quantities of narcotics throughout the United States,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jaquith said. “We hope this collaboration will stand beyond this tremendous success in bringing the curtain down not only on this drug trafficking enterprise but also on all who follow in their footsteps.”

The DEA said that money confiscated in previous drug cases helped build their new Plattsburgh office building, and money from this and future cases will go to strengthen local agencies that work hardest to break them. Police charged ten men with money-laundering conspiracy and seized $7 million in cash and drugs in this sweep. Prosecutors are also seeking “a money judgement in the amount of $25 million,” according to a press release.

Map of an alleged marijuana importation base at Snye, Quebec, on the Akwesasne Reservation, provided by federal law enforcement officials. You can see more images here.

Mary Thill


Mary Thill is a freelance journalist based in Saranac Lake.

You can follow Mary on Twitter.


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