Tri-Citians believed to be major movers of cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin in Eastern Washington and across the country are the target of investigators trying to put a plug in the drug pipeline.
Several recent cases in federal court show the Tri-Cities continues to play a big role in narcotics trafficking, with some drugs coming up from Mexico and others being shipped off to the East Coast.
Daniel Oziel Lopez and Cesar Cardenas Chavez allegedly sold $36,000 to $72,000 worth of cocaine to a middleman every three to four days.
It is not clear in court documents just how many other people police believe relied on the men for their regular supply.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Tri-City Herald
Griselda Ortega Hernandez was identified by federal investigators in March as a “suspected courier of narcotics.”
Five months later they tracked her movements to Southern California and back, stopping Hernandez as she returned to her home in Kennewick.
At least 25 pounds of meth were found inside the car, along with Hernandez’s 5-year-old daughter and the girl’s father.
And an investigation into a transnational drug trafficking organization that started in 2011 led to the indictment of 18 in December 2015, including a Kennewick man identified as a high-ranking member who worked for the leader until he fled to Mexico.
On the first day of trial this week, two members admitted conspiring to distribute large quantities of drugs and a third, charged with money laundering and conspiracy, entered into a diversion agreement for five years.
Every month, the Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force and the FBI’s Violent Gang Task Force bring new cases of the ongoing drug trade before federal grand juries in Eastern Washington.
Lopez of Pasco and Chavez, who lives in Kennewick, each are charged in U.S. District Court with one count of distributing 500 grams or more of cocaine. They have pleaded innocent and are set for trial March 18 before Senior Judge Ed Shea in the Richland federal courthouse.
Police were tipped off to Lopez and Chavez after a person arrested in Spokane this July for selling and possessing large quantities of cocaine became a confidential informant.
That informant talked about ordering one to two kilograms of cocaine at a time, at a cost of $36,000 per kilo.
The person would drive to the Tri-Cities and get a meeting spot from Lopez when close.
Detectives were watching in late July when the informant went to Chavez’s Kennewick home and exchanged $36,000 for one kilo.
Chavez later was found to have $2,000 of that prerecorded money in his pocket, and Lopez had another $2,000 of it in his car, documents said.
Both men are out of jail. They face 5 to 40 years in federal prison if convicted as charged.
Hernandez, the suspected courier, is charged with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of actual (pure) meth. Her trial is scheduled Feb. 11 before Judge Sal Mendoza Jr. in Richland.
Four months after task force officers started watching Hernandez, a federal judge signed a warrant to track a cellphone associated with the Kennewick woman.
On Aug. 9, investigators watched as the phone traveled south through Oregon and eventually to Southern California. Then on Aug. 13 phone data showed it coming back north.
Investigators reported “that driving straight through multiple states with limited stops and only staying at the final destination for 2-3 days is consistent behavior with narcotics traffickers/couriers.”
Task force officers went to Biggs, Ore., to observe the car pass through on the way back to the Tri-Cities. Hernandez was in the passenger seat, court documents said.
When officers stopped the car closer to Kennewick, and a police dog walking around the car’s exterior allegedly alerted to the presence of drugs.
Hernandez claimed she had only traveled to Sacramento, Calif., then later changed her story to say she had traveled farther south. She also admitted that meth was in the car but said it was only about a half-ounce, documents said.
Police discovered three large grocery-size bags filled with wrapped cylinders of meth and a duffel bag with three Tupperware containers of meth, court documents said.
Questioned again, Hernandez admitted going to California “to pick up the methamphetamine and deliver” it to Eastern Washington, documents said.
Hernandez is being held as a contract inmate in the Benton County jail. If convicted, she faces a minimum 10-year federal prison sentence with a maximum of life.
In the case about the transnational drug trafficking organization that has been ongoing for several years, the alleged high-ranking member recently had nine counts dismissed.
Jese David Carillo Casillas of Kennewick is still charged with conspiracy to distribute 500 grams or more of meth, 5 kilos or more of cocaine, 1 kilo or more of heroin and 400 grams or more of fentanyl. He has a second charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Casillas is a contract inmate in the Benton County jail. He faces at least 10 years in prison if convicted.
Seven other people have resolved their cases, with some going to prison for as long as 10 years.
Another case involves a Pasco man who was identified by a confidential informant as “a source of supply for cocaine in the Tri-City area,” according to court documents.
Ronald Shehee faces trial Nov. 19 on three counts of distributing 50 grams or more of pure meth.
Judge Mendoza was told this week that the defense plans to argue he was entrapped.
In that case, a confidential information allegedly made three separate purchases of cocaine at Shehee’s home between May and July 2017.
Then in October 2017, the informant got a call from Shehee offering to sell a large quantity of meth, documents said.
The informant bought a half pound of meth for $2,500.
Another person who was cooperating with law enforcement met with Shehee last November and ultimately made two separate purchases of a half-pound of meth for $2,650 each, documents said.
Those meet-ups happened in a public parking lot in Pasco.