U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger displays two pistols in Minneapolis Tuesday that were seized from the suspects in what authorities called a major drug smuggling ring operating between Minnesota and Florida. Federal drug and money laundering charges have been filed against nine men, including three from Rochester and one from Austin, believed responsible for the sale of some $30 million worth of cocaine in Minnesota during the past 4 years.
Eight members of the ring have been arrested and charged in U.S. District Court in St. Paul.
The Austin man, Eric Wells, 34, has fled and is believed out of the country, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.
Rochester men charged are David A. Radel, 40, and two of the owners of Brownie's Gym, Jeffrey G. Brown, 34, and James K. Brown, 31. All three are free after posting $10,000 bond. Their next court appearance is Thursday afternoon.
U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger said Tuesday the cocaine was smuggled into Minnesota from Florida and redistributed to dealers in the Twin Cities and Rochester areas.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ward, who is prosecuting the case, said the ring is believed responsible for smuggling at least 300 kilograms, or 660 pounds, of cocaine from Florida to Minnesota during a 4-year period. The street value of the cocaine has been estimated at $30 million.
Ward said the defendants come from middle-class backgrounds and have college educations. He said they distributed cocaine to people of similar backgrounds and used the proceeds to finance their affluent lifestyles.
A federal grand jury returned indictments against the nine on Oct. 28, but the indictments were sealed until the defendants were arrested.
Ward said this was a very large-scale distribution ring.
``The quantity of drugs involved places it among the largest rings ever,'' Ward said.
Mower County Sheriff Wayne Goodnature, who heads the Southeastern Narcotics Task Force, said the investigation was a spinoff from a case handled by the regional task force.
``Obviously, from the onset we knew it was too big for us to handle,'' Goodnature said. ``But we are proud and very happy. This is the most farreaching case and the largest in our region.''
Federal authorities called the investigation Operation Tarpon because one of the men arrested, Harold W. Gircsis Jr. of Port Charlotte, Fla., is a sports fisherman in the Key West area of Florida.
According to the indictment, Gircsis was a major cocaine supplier for Wells. The two were said to have recruited couriers to drive cocaine and money between Minnesota and Florida.
Ward said the Browns aided Wells in concealing his income from cocaine trafficking. The attorney said the Browns issued Wells fraudulent payroll checks and tax income statements that indicated Wells was employed by Brownie's Gym. But Wells never worked there.
Both Browns are charged with money laundering and face maximum sentences of 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
Radel is charged with transporting money and cocaine between Florida and Minnesota for Wells.
He also is accused of holding about $300,000 for Wells. Authorities said the money was the proceeds of cocaine trafficking. Radel faces a maximum 10-year sentence and a $500,000 fine on the money laundering charge and five years and a $250,000 fine on the interstate travel in aid of racketeering charge.
Wells faces seven charges and a possible life prison sentence if convicted. He is charged with conspiracy to distribute, three counts of possession and distribution of cocaine, one count of structuring transactions and two counts of money laundering. The sentences range from mandatory 20 years to life and $8 million in fines on the conspiracy and possession charges, to 10 years on the structuring charge and 20 years for money laundering.p