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Ring used copters to ferry drugs

Wed., March 25, 2009

U.S., Canadian authorities ground group that shipped marijuana south, cocaine north

SEATTLE – A significant drug trafficking operation that used helicopters to fly cocaine north into Canada and marijuana south into Washington state and Idaho has been dismantled, authorities said Tuesday.

However, a pilot who might have provided more information about the ring hanged himself with a bedsheet in the Spokane County Jail.

The investigation began Feb. 21, when the Utah Highway Patrol in Salt Lake City pulled over a car carrying about 183 pounds of cocaine; one of the two men inside had previously been linked to an ecstasy ring in Western Washington, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Seattle.

The men were bringing the cocaine to a remote part of the Colville National Forest, in Washington’s rugged northeastern corner, where they were to meet a helicopter flying in from southern British Columbia and exchange it for a load of marijuana, federal agents said.

Agents went to the spot and met the helicopter as it landed in a snowy clearing with 426 pounds of marijuana. They seized the chopper and its pilot, Samuel Lindsey-Brown, 24, of Revelstoke, B.C., who committed suicide in jail a few days later, on Feb. 27.

“We’re looking at all the circumstances involving his suicide,” said Seattle U.S. Attorney Jeffrey C. Sullivan. “Of course we have an interest in why did this pilot commit suicide.”

The following week, the drug ring tried to fly in another load of marijuana, this time landing a helicopter near Priest Lake in North Idaho. Agents seized 174 pounds of marijuana and arrested the pilot, Jeremy Snow, 29, of Kelowna, B.C.

Meanwhile, Royal Canadian Mounted Police found the helicopter’s takeoff site, near Nelson, B.C., and seized two men from Chilliwack there, along with 150 pounds of marijuana and 40,000 Ecstasy pills. They arrested three more people after serving search warrants.

Investigators said they believe the group had been operating for more than a year, and had been making at least weekly helicopter trips across remote, rarely patrolled sections of the U.S.-Canada border. The cocaine going north is believed to have originated in Mexico; the marijuana was apparently destined for the Los Angeles area, they said.

“This organization has been responsible for a much larger amount of drugs than what we were able to seize,” Sullivan said. “Will somebody take their place? Unfortunately, probably.”

Investigators on both sides of the border confiscated a total of 750 pounds of marijuana, 183 pounds of cocaine and 20 pounds of ecstasy, along with a few guns.

Nine people, all Canadians, were arrested, including Lindsey-Brown – five in Canada, four in the U.S. The two men arrested in Utah – Ross Legge, 53, and Leonard Ferris, 50, both of whom had been living in the U.S. – have been indicted in federal court in Utah for cocaine possession with intent to distribute. Legge has pleaded not guilty there, while Ferris chose to have his case transferred to federal court in Spokane. His lawyer did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The pilot arrested in Idaho, Snow, has been indicted by a federal grand jury in Seattle for conspiracy to possess marijuana with intent to distribute. He is expected to be transferred here. Prosecutors hope to extradite one of the defendants arrested in Canada to Seattle.

RCMP Staff Sgt. Dave Goddard said he believed that the drug ring was tied to increasingly violent gangs operating in southern British Columbia, and he credited quick intelligence sharing among U.S. and Canadian authorities for the success of the bust.

Still, he said it was somewhat frustrating to know that because of comparatively lenient laws, three of the defendants in Canada have been released on bail while those in the U.S. are in custody, possibly facing more than a decade behind bars.

“I guess personally it might be frustrating,” he said. “But it’s the law in Canada and it’s my duty to uphold those laws.”

Asked what made him believe the stricter drug laws in the U.S. were making any difference, Sullivan replied, “Our hope is that strong enforcement will result in deterrence” – a view which he acknowledged might be “pie-in-the-sky,” considering that reducing drug supply increases prices, which can provide incentive for people to become involved in the drug trade. But he also said he hoped that knowing harsh punishments await those busted for drug trafficking would make people think twice about participating.

If drugs are extremely expensive, he said wryly, then maybe “you’ll find something else to buy with your money – vegetables or fruit or something.”

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