Snow covered the ground and the wind howled furiously as a young Canadian man approached the Colville National Forest, piloting a helicopter packed with marijuana.
Federal agents say Samuel Jackson Lindsay-Brown was to trade the 426 pounds of pot for 182 pounds of cocaine that two men traveling from Utah were supposed to be delivering. The trade never happened.
Instead, the federal agents were waiting.
Lindsay-Brown, 24, was arrested as he stepped off the helicopter that stormy Feb. 23 evening, one subject of a rapidly growing drug investigation that gave agents a clear glimpse into a lucrative underworld stretching from the streets of Southern California to the forests near Priest Lake, Idaho.
For at least a year, federal agents say, Lindsay-Brown was part of an international smuggling operation that relied on helicopters to evade police while distributing thousands of pounds of marijuana, cocaine and Ecstasy throughout the western United States and Canada. Two men charged with leading the operation are wanted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on trafficking charges, and they have been linked to outlaw Canadian gangs implicated in drug-related slayings and other violence.
“This is ruthless stuff,” said U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt, whose office in Spokane is handling prosecution of one of the cases. “Snuffing out the life of a competitor or a snitch, or of a cooperator or even an agent is nothing to them.”
Lindsay-Brown – a hero to some in the world of extreme mountain-biking – killed himself in Spokane County Jail on Feb. 27, three days after appearing in U.S. District Court on a drug charge he was told could send him to prison for 40 years.
But the likelihood of such a sentence was slim, judging by the cases against Lindsay-Brown’s alleged accomplices.
One of those men, Leonard J. Ferris, is to be sentenced Wednesday in Spokane.
Operation Blade Runner
Ferris, 50, was arrested Feb. 21 with Ross N. Legge, 53, after state troopers found cocaine in their vehicle during a traffic stop near Ogden, Utah, according to court documents. Authorities believe the men were on their way to the Colville National Forest, where they were to wait for Lindsay-Brown to land his marijuana-laden helicopter.
Legge, who reportedly told investigators he’d made $70,000 in six months as a drug smuggler, is fighting the charges in federal court in Utah.
Ferris, who troopers say allowed them to search the car, told DEA agents about a storage center in Spokane Valley where he and Legge stored property “that had been used to facilitate narcotics smuggling and transportation,” according to a search warrant filed in Spokane County Superior Court in April.
DEA agents raided the storage unit, at 19410 Broadway Ave., on March 5 after getting a tip that associates of Legge’s had traveled to Spokane to secure his belongings.
Investigators took a trailer, ATV and snowmobile, according to the warrant, then returned for a Sierra camper after Legge said he’d used it to pick up marijuana near the border and transport it to Spokane.
Ferris was charged with intent to distribute and conspiracy to distribute cocaine. He pleaded guilty in April and is scheduled to be sentenced at 9 a.m. Wednesday. According to court documents, Ferris and Legge were arrested just before an undercover agent infiltrated the group and arranged for another marijuana transaction in early March.
Like the February case involving Lindsay-Brown, the drugs arrived aboard a helicopter flown across the Canadian border to a remote Inland Northwest location. Agents arrested the helicopter pilot, 29-year-old Jeremy Snow, on March 5 after he landed with 150 pounds of marijuana near Priest Lake. Investigators say he had planned to fly a second load with 150 more pounds of marijuana and 40,000 Ecstasy pills.
The investigation became known among federal agents as Operation Blade Runner.
Snow, of Kelowna, B.C., was sentenced in October to 46 months in prison.
A deeper investigation
Snow was indicted in federal court in Seattle as part of a drug conspiracy allegedly involving two Canadian men wanted by U.S. authorities, Adam Christian J. Serrano and James Gregory Cameron.
According to court documents, Serrano met with an undercover agent posing as a drug distributor in Los Angeles in January 2008 and brokered a deal that led federal agents to a motel in Tukwila, Wash., that March.
There, they arrested Wayne T.A. Coates with 200,000 Ecstasy pills, the first arrest in a case authorities say is ongoing.
The drugs, agents say, came from a helicopter that landed in the Colville National Forest. Lindsay-Brown is thought to have been involved, according to court documents.
Two days after Coates’ arrest, a woman who a friend told Rolling Stone magazine had been romantically involved with Lindsay-Brown was stopped on a highway outside of Woodland, Calif.
Lucretia James was arrested after investigators found 160 pounds of cocaine in her possession.
Coates is serving a five-year prison sentence. James was sentenced to three years in prison in February.
Authorities believe James’ cocaine came from Mexico through Southern California, where drug agents allege Serrano controlled a massive drug distribution ring.
Also named as a suspect in the case is Joseph P. Curry, who was arrested by federal agents with 68 pounds of Ecstasy in Eastern Washington in 2007. Curry posted bail and never returned, according to court documents.
Authorities say Curry also is an associate of reputed Canadian gangster Clay Roueche, who is awaiting sentencing on federal drug conspiracy charges in Seattle.
In documents filed last month, federal prosecutors call Roueche “worldly and charismatic” but “remorseless” and “extraordinarily dangerous.”
He’s accused of leading a multimillion-dollar international drug ring connected to murders in Canada. When taken into custody by U.S. agents, Roueche reportedly was wearing a ring worth $125,000. Prosecutors are recommending he serve at least 30 years in prison.
‘It’s pot and that’s it’
Lindsay-Brown didn’t have a pilot’s license but told federal agents the night of his arrest that he had completed 65 hours of flight time.
Agents had expected his arrival after Ferris and Legge were arrested with Canadian-bound cocaine, but they were surprised to see him that night – treacherous weather made flight conditions terrible.
“The agents themselves said that they were absolutely floored when they heard the helicopter and when it actually came in,” said McDevitt, the federal prosecutor and a longtime pilot. “They had written it off.”
But Lindsay-Brown was known back home in Revelstoke, B.C., as a thrill-seeker. He’d built a reputation in extreme mountain-biking as a young teen, and his death received national attention. Rolling Stone’s profile, published over the summer, ran seven pages.
When DEA agents arrested him, they said, Lindsay-Brown told them “he wanted to cooperate” but would need to be allowed to fly the helicopter back to Canada.
When the agents declined, Lindsay-Brown said, “Morally, there’s nothing wrong with what I’m doing. It’s pot and that’s it,” according to court documents prepared by the arresting agents. “He attempted to engage us in a debate about the merits of legalization/criminalization of marijuana. We declined to engage and he was transported to the Spokane County Jail.”
McDevitt was in the courtroom at the federal courthouse in Spokane when Lindsay-Brown first appeared on his charges. He was struck by the appearance of the nice, clean-cut kid.
“He looked like he was about 18,” McDevitt said. “I thought to myself as I often do in this business, ‘What a shame. What an absolute shame.’ ”
Still, he said, “I don’t think ‘innocent victim of the drug war’ fits. This kid was a major transporter.”
Room for flexibility
Lindsay-Brown was found dead Feb. 27, hanging from a bedsheet he’d looped through a light fixture. He’d yanked the fixture out of the wall to make space for the makeshift noose. Friends speculated in the Rolling Stone article that the prospect of a long prison sentence was unbearable.
Lindsay-Brown’s charge carried a sentence of five years to 40 years, information he heard during his first court appearance.
But he had no criminal record, and, “if somebody cooperates and joins ‘Team America’ as we say, and we’re able to work our way up the chain of command, we have the discretion to cut his sentence down considerably,” McDevitt said.
Cooperation with authorities is the key, but in the drug world, that can be dangerous.
For many smugglers, McDevitt said, “you’ve got family living in Canada and you know that if you start talking or they even think you start talking, you put your family in jeopardy.”
An attorney for James, the woman arrested in California with cocaine, said in court documents that James fears for her life if details of her cooperation with authorities are released.
“Several unidentified people have made inquiries about when Ms. James will be released from prison,” according to the documents.
Included with the documents is a copy of a Canadian newspaper article detailing “a kit for kidnapping or murder,” including guns, handcuffs and night-vision goggles, found at reputed drug lord Roueche’s home.
The documents were filed to persuade a judge to keep James’ file sealed. Her case has since been unsealed, but details of her possible cooperation with the investigation are redacted.
Also sealed in the investigation are documents pertaining to a plea deal federal prosecutors drafted for Ferris, one of the two men arrested with cocaine in Utah.
Ferris pleaded guilty two months after his February arrest.