3 held after 'ingenious' drug plot foiled
MINNEAPOLIS -- Minneapolis police say they tipped off U.S. Customs agents in Chicago to stop a Minnesota man from smuggling 85 pounds of opium-soaked tablecloths into the United States from Thailand.
Police said the tablecloths were bound for the Twin Cities, where they would have been boiled with a solvent to produce more than 9 pounds of heroin, worth about $5 million.
Lt. Dan Grout, head of the narcotics unit, said that because it was a such an unusual way to smuggle the drug into the country, customs agents might not have detected the drugs without the tip.
But after Michael S. James of Minneapolis went through customs at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago with 90 tablecloths in two suitcases on April 18, he was greeted by the agents.
Grout said the large amount of opium indicated the man could be part of a ring. "This may be the tip of the iceberg, but we can't be sure," he said. "This was too big a purchase for this to be an experimental run."
James, Vong Her of St. Paul and Fai Yang of Eau Claire, Wis., were arrested at O'Hare and charged April 19 in federal court in Chicago with importing drugs.
The charges allege the drugs were headed to a gang in Minneapolis. Grout didn't know whether any of the men were gang members.
Court records say a St. Paul man had offered James $10,000 and a free plane ticket to fly overseas and come back to the Twin Cities with the tablecloths.
James' connection in Bangkok was a man known as Boar, who James would later learn lived in Eau Claire, Wis., and launched the scheme, authorities say.
According to the complaint:
Yang offered Her $2,500 to find somebody willing to travel to Thailand to pick up the opium. Her arranged it with James, with whom he had used drugs during the past four years.
James told authorities he was to be paid $5,000 per suitcase, which he knew contained tablecloths soaked in opium. He was met in Thailand by a man named Boar, who gave James the tablecloths and invoices that he could show to customs agents.
Boar was later identified as Yang, and he and Her met James at O'Hare on April 18. When James had left for Bangkok, he had one piece of luggage weighing about 35 pounds. But when he flew back to Chicago on a direct flight from Tokyo, he had two suitcases weighing 130 pounds.
A drug-sniffing dog detected drugs in James' suitcases. He was allowed to check his luggage through and meet Her and Yang before all three were arrested. Agents found 30 sealed plastic bags with 90 tablecloths inside the suitcases.
The method used to bring the drugs into the United States was "amazingly ingenious," said Lt. John Cich, who leads the narcotics unit for the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office. A longtime drug officer, he said nine pounds would have been a huge hit in the heroin market in Minnesota.
"You need less than one-tenth of a gram of heroin to get high," he said.