Under the cover of lightly falling snow early Tuesday morning, 70 law enforcement officials raided a dozen homes on the South Shore and arrested 12 men accused of running a drug ring in South Lake Tahoe.
The arrests came after an eight-month investigation conducted by SLEDNET, the South Shore's narcotics task force, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the California Department of Justice. Investigators said 21 people conspired to bring large amounts of methamphetamine to South Lake Tahoe, and accused them of selling pounds of drugs on the South Shore.
Most of the drugs came from Santa Rosa but Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Grad said investigators are not sure where the methamphetamine was made. Grad would not release the amount of methamphetamine that was seized, but informants allegedly bought pounds of the drug from the suspects.
"We have not had a case of this magnitude for a long time," said Chris Elliot of SLEDNET. "This group was poisoning this community with a substantial amount of methamphetamine, which is by far the worst drug I have seen on the street. I have seen it absolutely destroy people's lives."
Of the 20 men and one woman allegedly involved in distributing the drugs, two were arrested in Santa Rosa Tuesday, three are still at large. Four suspects were already in custody facing charges in Yolo, Sacramento and El Dorado counties.
All state charges pending against the suspects will be dropped in favor of federal charges, according to Grad, who is prosecuting the case.
The people arrested Tuesday were: Alberto Jiminez-Morales and Jose Jiminez-Godinez, both of Santa Rosa; Carlos Casillas-Jiminez, Francisco Diaz, Sergio Aldana, Cecillo Aldana, Marco Huerta, Adrian Reyes-Cruz, Keith Taylor, Ted Cloward, Fernando Vasquez-Sanchez, Brian Larsen, Tobin Kinsey, and Carlos Lomeli, all of South Lake Tahoe.
Luis Martinez, Alvaro Aragon-Sanchez, Erika Grimaldo, and Victor Rosales, all of South Lake Tahoe, were already in custody. The three fugitives are Alfredo Garcia, Efrain Villagomez and Juan Aldana.
Hector Vasquez-Sanchez was also arrested in connection with the drug ring and will face charges in El Dorado County.
The arrests were announced shortly before the men arrested Tuesday made their initial appearances in federal court - 12 in Sacramento and two in San Francisco.
Grad said the charges against the 21 defendants for possession and conspiracy to sell methamphetamine carry maximum penalties of life in prison and fines of up to $4 million each.
In Sacramento, U.S. Magistrate Judge John F. Moulds appointed attorneys to represent each defendant. None of the defendants spoke in the courtroom, and several of them wore headsets to aid translation.
Bail hearings were scheduled for next week, and the defendants are scheduled to return to court June 1 for formal arraignment and pleas.
"Now we have to go before a grand jury and seek formal federal indictments against these people," Grad said.
She added she was pleased with the investigation and Tuesday's operation.
U.S. Attorney Paul Seave said it involved more than 120 officers, who executed search and arrest warrants at 20 locations in South Lake Tahoe and Santa Rosa. He also said evidence was gathered from court-ordered wire taps on three telephones used by several defendants.
"This was a complete success, and I think the community can be proud of the work that was done," Elliot said. "If somebody thinks they can slide in here and sell drugs they have another thing coming - it is only a matter of time before SLEDNET will come knocking at their door."
Elliot said that more arrests might be made after further investigation. He encouraged people with information about narcotics crime to call SLEDNET at (775) 588-0476.
One of the people knocking on doors Tuesday was Sgt. Lance Modispacher of the Douglas County Sheriff's Department, one of nine law enforcement agencies involved in the arrests.
He and a team of men arrested 19-year-old Francisco Diaz in his apartment on Ski Run Boulevard, where he lives with his girlfriend and their 9-month-old baby.
"I was glad to be a part of it," Modispacher said. "I think this is going to make a huge dent in what I deem to be the most dangerous drug, and the most prevalent drug among our youth. Crank is everywhere."
According to Elliot, 38 percent of the drug arrests on the South Shore last year were for methamphetamine.
The drug is a powerful stimulant that works directly on the brain and central nervous system by interfering with normal nerve functions. It is made with over-the-counter drugs and household chemicals and is especially prevalent in the Midwest. Methamphetamine can kill by causing heart failure, brain damage and stroke. It also induces extreme psychological symptoms that can lead to suicide and murder.
Elliot and Modispacher said the best way to combat drug use is through education and prevention, rather than through law enforcement. They also said the arrests are a perfect example of how well federal and local authorities can work together.
"The community and police need to work together to keep drugs off the street," Elliot said. "(Arrests are) not the answer, they are part of the solution."