Mailing marijuana from California is an old way to transport the drug, but apparently still works, based on details about Milwaukee's latest major drug trafficking bust.
According to a federal criminal complaint filed Sept. 22, the Louis Rey Perez III organization received more than a ton of pot, edibles and THC oil for vaping cartridges over the past year or so, usually in packages delivered by FedEx, UPS and DHL.
The packages were delivered to addresses all over town, then quickly retrieved and brought to a few main stash houses from where it was distributed to dealers, or, in the case of oils, taken to a garage near N. 49th and Hampton where it was put into thousands of vape cartridges imported from Hong Kong.
The marijuana came packaged with the label Midwest Connected, the vape cartridges with counterfeit labels of popular brand West Coast Cure and others.
More than two dozen people were arrested around Milwaukee and in California, as Attorney General William Barr flew to Milwaukee last week to announce the bust. The political nature of that event overshadowed the substance of the investigation, detailed in a more than 230-page complaint.
The document reveals that while much of the community was staying safer-at-home this spring, federal, state and local agents put a full-court press on the Perez organization, using extensive camera and in-person surveillance, GPS car trackers, phone taps and warrants to examine the subjects' Snap Chat, Instagram and various other messaging accounts.
The operation involved Perez's father and his sister as well as his girlfriend, Xina Yang, and several of her siblings. The California source also involved a father and son, though the complaint suggests Julian Sanchez, 24, didn't always trust his dad, Miguel Sarabia, 45. Intercepted calls show Sanchez felt Sarabia was selling products to Perez outside Sanchez's connection and not cutting him in. Sarabia expressed concerns his son wasn't fully applying himself in the drug business.
Sarabia made perhaps the most interesting disclosures in recorded calls. At one point, he tells an unidentified person that Sarabia, who also uses the alias Ali Mas according to court records, has purchased a commercial building and adjacent land in Madison for a future wholesale distribution site, on the assumption marijuana would someday be legal in Wisconsin like it is in 11 states and the District of Columbia.
According to the complaint, Sarabia runs numerous businesses in California, which he used to launder the millions of dollars in cash Perez would mail to him, $20,000 per box tucked among magazines. Agents believe Perez and Yang mailed about $1.3 million to California from December to July.
Perez and Yang, both 23, on the other hand, didn't even pretend to operate front businesses. Investigators wrote that through the many months of digging, they could not "identify any legitimate income" for the couple, who had moved into a house on S. 57th St. in West Allis, where Perez was installing a 700-pound hidden safe in the basement floor, based on intercepted conversations with his contractor.
But the complaint shows them putting in long days in the drug trade, keeping track of dozens and dozens of packages arriving with marijuana and taking cash back to California, driving around in an Impala, a Jaguar, a Dodge Charger and other vehicles as they visit post offices, stash houses and banks.
Two drug shipments were intercepted by agents in late April, setting off a bit of a frenzy and a new round of phone numbers. Then in July, Perez mailed three packages -- containing an estimated $60,000 -- to Sanchez in California. When they didn't arrive there was another scramble as Sanchez and others there checked with neighbors and even confronted the mail carrier.
Perez became suspicious someone linked to his California sources had stolen the money. Later that month, Sarabia and his girlfriend came to Milwaukee to pick up payments in person, and were seen making small deposits at ATMs around the area and Northern Illinois.
Federal officials declined to talk about the case, or answer specific questions about the genesis of the Perez organization investigation, which the complaint says began in 2018. It says Perez came up in wiretaps authorized in Ohio in early 2019, and that an unidentified informant -- someone facing his own serious drug charges -- told authorities in fall 2019 that he had sold Perez around 22 pounds of cocaine a week for nearly two years.
Another informant told investigators that Antonio Rodriguez, who was arrested in Milwaukee in February, hung out or did business with Perez. A local judge authorized phone taps starting in March, and eventually, agents were listening in on eight phones used by Perez, Yang, Sanchez and Sarabia as late as September.
Perez Jr., alias Pops, was working for his son's operation even as he awaiting sentencing in Utah. In September 2018, the elder Perez was stopped while driving a pickup carrying nearly 20 pounds of cocaine in a hidden compartment. He denied any knowledge of the drugs and was released, but was later indicted for drug trafficking.
He pleaded guilty in August 2019, but wasn't sentenced until June -- right in the middle of the Milwaukee investigation. Perez Jr. sought the postponement so he'd have time to raise the money it would take to fly his family to Utah for the sentencing. He's now serving a five-year federal sentence at a prison in Minnesota.
Rodriguez, 21, failed to appear for his preliminary hearing in March, lost $25,000 bail and is a fugitive now on the state drug and gun charges.
In August, Manuel Soto, 28, became a suspect in a shooting being investigated by Milwaukee police. When he was arrested for violation of parole, he had a stolen gun, a 30-round magazine, some marijuana and marijuana vape cartridges.
The rest of the defendants, most arrested September 22 as agents served a dozen search warrants, remain in federal custody.
Others charged in the case include Hauseng Yang, 18, Hector Arenas, 27, Louis F. Gomez Jr., 19, Ivan J. Galan, 27, Jose A. Alvarado, 24, Esteban Reyes, 46, Kevin Taylor, 28, Ma Yang, 32, Mary Yang, 29, Jasmine L. Perez, 28, Michael Bub, 33, Chong Yang, 28, Michele H. Hart, 55, Mercedes Herbert Gonzalez, 29, Azia Yang, 18, Carina Rodriguez, 20, Ger Yang, 20, Shayla A. Knueppel, 23, all of the Milwaukee area, and Gabriel Matteson, 22, of California.
Vielmetti, Bruce. “Feds: South Side Drug Ring Branched out to Counterfeit Marijuana Vape Cartridges.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 2 Oct. 2020, www.jsonline.com/story/news/crime/2020/10/02/nearly-2-dozen-locals-charged-california-milwaukee-drug-ring/3587740001/.
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