April 14, 2003 Law-enforcement officials arrested eight people last week, among them a St. Thomas police officer, for their involvement in what U.S. Attorney David Nissman called one of the most "prolific" cocaine busts in Virgin Islands history.
At a press conference at St. Croix's District Court on Monday morning, a host of federal and local officials gathered to unveil the results of Operation Landfall, a two-year investigation that yielded more than $1 million in seized assets.
Nissman said two other arrests are pending, with at least one expected later this week; the names of the suspects are under seal until that time.
The ringleader of the cartel, according to an indictment filed Friday, was St. Thomas business owner Craig Hendricks, 33. Hendricks, who owns Craig's Marine Service, allegedly "controlled, orchestrated and supervised both the importation and possession of narcotics," the indictment said. It said he used the business as a "front" for the smuggling operation.
Russell Robinson, Elroy Dowe, Daniel Fleming, Ranney Laronde, Andy Antoine, Rudolph Clark, and V.I. Police Department Officer Rafael Cintron, 42, were also named in the 12-count indictment.
The conspirators, the indictment alleged, purchased wholesale quantities of cocaine, generally from outside the territory, and smuggled them in with speedboats and private aircraft purchased with drug money. Nissman said most of the drugs involved in the operation came to St. Thomas through St. Maarten and Tortola and were smuggled to New York, Miami, and North and South Carolina.
Robinson, a private pilot, would transport Hendricks, and the others, throughout the Caribbean to deliver the illegal proceeds of the drug sales for laundering or to pick up drug shipments to the Virgin Islands, the indictment said.
The indictment said Fleming would store the cocaine at his home, then deliver it to buyers. When a drug transaction was taking place, the indictment said, conspirators would conduct surveillance to detect possible law-enforcement presence, and then would use some of the money from the drug sales to buy speedboats, vehicles, airplanes, maintenance and surveillance detection equipment, and cellular phones.
The conspirators, Nissman said, would import and export hundreds of kilograms of cocaine at a time. In order to avoid currency-reporting requirements, the conspirators deposited money in various bank accounts in sums that would not be detected, or they wired money via Western Union outside the territory, according to the indictment. They also moved millions in cash to islands outside the territory or reinvested the money in real estate or equipment, the indictment said.
The indictment goes on to list several dates in which one or several of the conspirators were involved in drug transactions. Officer Cintron, who worked as a member of the VIPD's Blue Lightning Marine Unit, is mentioned once in the indictment. It said that in January, Dowe contacted him and asked him to solicit information about the recent seizure of Hendricks' property. Cintron allegedly contacted a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force officer and sought that information on Dowe's behalf.
The seized property, Nissman said, will be split among the agencies that participated in the sting, but it is too early to say just how they will be divided.
Nissman said it is difficult at this point to say how the bust will affect local drug sales. He said Hendricks' co-conspirators often were paid in drugs, which in turn were sold locally. "We won't really know unless we see prices go up."
Several other top officials from federal and local agencies spoke on behalf of their departments. Among those involved were the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, HIDTA officers, the VIPD, the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Customs and Immigration, and the U.S. Attorney's Office. Each lauded the collective effort put forth in conducting the operation.
The IRS played a big role in analyzing the money laundering aspect of the case, Nissman said, and that agency's special agent in charge for the Virgin Islands, Lorraine Johnson, announced that soon two full-time agents will be deployed to St. Croix to work on fraud and corruption cases.
Acting Police Commissioner Elton Lewis said that while it is a "sad day" for the department, considering the involvement of an officer, he will work to "rid the VIPD of corrupt police officers."
"I want to make it crystal clear: the interest of the officers are looked out for in the best possible way, but they have got to stay within the circle of the law," Lewis said.
The entire investigation, Nissman said, began on tips to law-enforcement officials at the onset of the operation.
He said public input is important in solving cases like this and encouraged people to make use of the various agencies' hotlines to report information.
DEA/HIDTA, call 713-1497
FBI, call 777-3363
IRS/USAO, call 773-3920
Customs, call (800) 691-3030
VIPD, call 777-8711 on St. Thomas and 778-4950 on St. Croix.
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