Women with ties to a Los Angeles gang smuggled about 10,000 illicit pills a week for several years through Spokane International Airport, according to federal investigators.
The painkillers were sold by Spokane drug dealers and the cash collected was then often flown back to California, sometimes in bundles of bills totaling more than $100,000 stashed in checked luggage.
Local and federal drug agents busted the suspected oxycodone ring in March 2013, implicating dozens of people including the owner of a Spokane restaurant franchise. Through wiretaps, luggage searches and social media postings, investigators built a case that women were hiding drugs on their bodies, arriving with between 2,000 and 3,000 pills every two or three days.
One of the suspected ringleaders, Richard Jamal Haynes, pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to multiple criminal counts, including conspiracy to commit drug trafficking. If the plea deal is accepted, Haynes will spend at least 20 years in prison.
Details of the investigation released in court documents show Haynes, a suspected member of a Los Angeles gang, first traveled to Spokane in 2008 to learn how to sell pills on the streets. Recordings of phone conversations show that by August 2012, he was facilitating some of the trafficking, which also stretched to Seattle and Coeur d’Alene, investigators allege.
In all, investigators believe Haynes was responsible for more than 2 million oxycodone pills arriving in Spokane.
Several defendants are awaiting trial in the case, which was so large it required the court to split alleged co-conspirators into three separate groups for trial. Last week, Flamin’ Joes owner Sally B. Guthrie accepted a plea deal to avoid federal prosecution in exchange for pleading guilty in state court to a misdemeanor charge of providing a false statement to police. She agreed to testify against alleged accomplices.
Federal authorities bugged six cellphones and received records from 17 other phone accounts to build the case. They learned members of a Los Angeles gang would buy pills for $10 to $12 apiece from sources, including pharmacies and doctors. Sellers would offer those pills for as much as double that price on the streets of Spokane, according to court documents.
Later in the investigation, DEA agents began searching the checked luggage of suspected female “couriers.” In a bag belonging to Erika M. Woods, one of those indicted on federal charges, they found $107,270 in cash and about 200 pills in September 2012, according to court documents. They seized the drugs and money and sent Woods’ luggage on another flight, instructing the airline to go along with the ruse and tell her it had been lost in transit.
Agents then listened to a confused Woods phone Haynes, according to court documents.
“I don’t know who it could have been,” Woods can be heard saying on tapes after discovering the drugs and money in her bag were missing.
“Huh, I don’t know what to say, umm. Let’s see right now, that’s crazy,” Haynes said.
“Can the police do that?” Woods asked.
“No,” Haynes said.
Federal agents searched a home in the 1800 block of North Lacey Street they suspected Haynes used to traffick drugs during the March 2013 bust. They found multiple weapons, referred to as “cannons” in conversations recorded by DEA agents.
Oxycodone is classified as a Schedule II controlled substance by the federal government, meaning it has both illicit and medicinal purposes. The Food and Drug Administration has pushed for new labeling of the drug to prevent abuse, and the Justice Department as well as the DEA have released multiple studies on its abuse.
Local law enforcement made a similar drug bust earlier this year, in which dozens were arrested on suspicions of dealing pills, methamphetamine, cocaine and other illegal drugs. Those cases are pending in federal court.
Haynes is scheduled to be sentenced in September. Woods has also pleaded guilty to some charges and is set for sentencing in October.