Law enforcement agents knocked on the door of a hotel room belonging to the “kingpin” of one of the largest methamphetamine trafficking operations in local history, and the suspect let them in. He didn’t even look surprised, according to one of the agents.
The group found 5 pounds of meth in the room and arrested the man, Joshua Alberto “Pariente” Rodriguez, according to the criminal complaint filed in federal court.
Seemingly endless hours of planning, surveillance, interviews and undercover work by the Russell Country Drug Task Force, and more than a dozen partnering law enforcement agencies, culminated on Sept. 26, 2014, with one goal shared by more than 20 agents: take the drug dealers down.
“This is the climax. It’s what you worked a year and a half for,” one of the task force detectives explained. His name is being kept confidential for his safety.
Thanks to state legislation restricting the purchase of ingredients needed to manufacture or “cook” meth, labs are nearly nonexistent in Montana. That’s according to Bryan Lockerby, an administrator with the Montana Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation, or DCI.
Lockerby says the Mexican drug cartel used that opening to push its product — very pure meth produced efficiently and sold at great profit — into Montana.
Operations like this one, which was given the name, “Operation Highline Crystal Highway” because the drugs were distributed in Butte, Great Falls, Havre and elsewhere, are the new way meth gets into Montana.
Agents were watching members of the trafficking operation as they traveled from California to Montana through assisting law enforcement officers and GPS tracking. Rodriguez, of California, and Eduardo Ocegueda-Ruiz, a Mexican citizen using the name Miguel Cuenca-Sepulveda, were driving a Buick Enclave rented by Rodriguez.
On Sept. 25 at about 4 a.m., they were stopped by California Highway Patrol troopers who cited Rodriguez for speeding and seized what was later determined to be 3 pounds of meth.
The suspects arrived in Butte in the early morning hours of Sept. 26. They met with two other members of the trafficking group at a hotel, where Ocegueda-Ruiz acted as an interpreter. An exchange of meth and firearms took place between Rodriguez and several men from Montana involved in the organization including Martin Leland of Belt and Lawrence Griner of Butte.
The group left Butte in separate vehicles later that morning for Great Falls. Rodriguez rented a hotel room. Ocegueda-Ruiz went to the hotel and then to a nearby restaurant.
Leland and another suspect named, Jeffery June, met Ocegueda-Ruiz in the parking lot where agents had reason to believe a firearm was exchanged as payment for meth.
The arrests began after that transaction.
“We really were a well-oiled machine,” the detective noted.
The fact that no one was hurt spoke to the level of training the involved officers received, especially given the number of weapons seized in the case.
Ocegueda-Ruiz was arrested in the restaurant parking lot with two pistols concealed on his person, along with more than 70 rounds of ammunition.
Agents arrested Leland and June a few blocks away in Leland’s vehicle. They found a handgun and 4 ounces of meth. Rodriguez was arrested in his hotel room. Griner was arrested in Butte. He was in possession of about $17,000 and 6 ounces of meth.
According to the detective, most of the suspects cooperated with law enforcement after their arrest. Ocegueda-Ruiz was the only defendant to go to trial. The others took plea deals.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office charged and convicted 20 defendants and law enforcement seized more than 13 pounds of meth brought in from California while also recovering 25 firearms.
Court testimony revealed that Ocegueda-Ruiz was likely in Great Falls as an “enforcer” to intimidate others within the organization.
Less than two weeks before the arrests, Ocegueda-Ruiz was quoted saying he wanted to come to Great Falls to “kick in doors with guns blazing.”
Testimony indicated co-defendants Cody Lampert and Sarah Jane Young were the suspected targets of potential violence during the Sept. 26 trip because they had reportedly “ripped off” Rodriguez. The criminal complaint says Leland and June discussed obtaining a handgun specifically to retaliate against others who ripped them off.
According to court testimony, the meth was worth $17,000 to $20,000 per pound in Great Falls at that time, and Rodriguez paid approximately $3,000 per pound for it in California. Before that final trip in September, it was brought to Montana and given to local dealers for distribution.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Betley called the motivation of the operation “pure greed.”
“That’s what dope is,” the detective added, “the lure of easy money and addiction.”
“We live in the ‘Last Best Place,’” said Cascade County Sheriff Bob Edwards. “I think people here are good people, but the drugs are coming in.”
Edwards’ office has one detective on the task force, which is part of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, or HIDTA. The others are detectives from the Great Falls Police Department, Pondera County Sheriff’s Office and federal agencies.
The task force detective stepped into the “Crystal Highway” case after a suspect arrested on drug charges in early 2014 mentioned “three brothers from Mexico” bringing meth to the area. Several others told the same story during subsequent law enforcement interviews.
The operation was not new, but now the task force had enough information to start building a case.
A case must meet certain criteria to qualify as a HIDTA operation, according to GFPD Lt. Mike Grubb, the task force commander. HIDTA’s mission is to reduce the availability of illicit drugs by dismantling and disrupting drug trafficking operations. Documentation of historical data for a case to reach this level is required, and compiling that information takes time.
“It’s completely exhausting,” the detective said of the investigation process, which involves consistent overtime to complete hours upon hours of surveillance work and report-writing, “but completely worth it.”
According to the task force detective, he and his fellow agents assembled the case to the point to qualify for a wiretap so they could listen in on phone calls made by suspects within the organization.
The task force also monitored text messages being sent and received among suspects within the organization. They obtained a search warrant to monitor the GPS data recording the movement of Rodriguez’s phone.
They used this information, along with information from confidential informants and undercover officers purchasing drugs from members of the organization, to determine the hierarchy and methods of the operation. According to court documents and testimony, Rodriguez made about 13 trips to Montana in 2014. During those trips he distributed meth to Leland, Griner and June, who then re-distributed it throughout the state.
The detective says they had enough from the wire and heard the suspects were bringing a large quantity into Montana.
“We knew it was time to make arrests,” he said
After the arrests the U.S. Attorney’s Office took control of the case. The plea deals were signed and sentencing hearings held at a steady pace.
Ocegueda-Ruiz was convicted at trial of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, felon in possession of a firearm and illegal alien in possession of a firearm. He received a life sentence plus five years to be served in federal prison.
Leland was sentenced to more than seven years in federal prison for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy involving a firearm and drug trafficking crime.
Rodriguez was the last defendant to be sentenced. He received more than 22 years in federal prison for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, conspiracy to possess firearms in furtherance of the commission of a drug trafficking crime and conspiracy to commit money laundering at a hearing last June.
“I hope this wiped out a significant source,” United States District Court Judge Brian Morris said at the hearing. “I hope this provides more than temporary reprieve.”
But meth is still here.
“Someone always steps in to take the place of those arrested because there is money to be made,” the detective explained.
“The biggest drug we’re dealing with in Montana is meth. It’s almost omnipresent,” noted Montana State Crime Lab Forensic Toxicologist Scott Schlueter. “It’s not slowing down.”
Meth is still being driven to and even mailed to Montana, according to Grubb.
The men and women investigating drug trafficking operations continue to search for the sources of meth coming to Montana.
The detective says the operations are not as big as “Crystal Highway,” but meth is coming in by pounds, concealed in secret compartments of vehicles.
“We have a lot of smart people in jail,” Edwards said of the methods suspects use to traffic narcotics. “If only they’d use that business sense and be a productive citizen.”
Three California men were arrested last November and charged in Montana’s 8th Judicial District (Cascade County) with trafficking meth into Great Falls from California.
According to court documents, Cesar Christian Sanchez-Lopez, Robert Jaramillo and Victor Castro were arrested during a traffic stop initiated by the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office after tips were shared with the task force.
Investigators obtained a search warrant for the vehicle and found 1.86 pounds of meth hidden in a compartment near the electronic wiring area that was accessible from the glove compartment. Reports indicate the drugs were located with the assistance of a GFPD K-9, despite being heat-sealed in plastic and packed with yellow mustard, a method used to mask the scent of narcotics.
“Our officers statewide are doing a great job,” Lockerby explained. “They don’t give up. They may get frustrated, but they’ve stopped a lot of dope coming in.”
And they’ll continue to do so.
“Would we do another one? Yeah,” the detective said of another large-scale operation. “It was worth it for our community.”
While Lockerby commends the officers working narcotics cases, he says drug arrests alone will not solve Montana’s meth problem.
“There has to be more than the enforcement side,” he said.
Morris echoed the notion that the demand for narcotics must be addressed at Rodriguez’s sentencing hearing, calling it a “vacuum sucking meth into our community.”