Suspected Southern California drug traffickers charged, arrested in operations targeting ‘darknet’ sales

LOS ANGELES — Federal officials announced a crackdown Tuesday on an alleged Los Angeles-based drug trafficking ring that they said distributed methamphetamine and other narcotics to thousands of customers in at least 35 states and numerous countries around the world via hidden darknet websites.

Prosecutors said the organization used online names such as “Stealthgod” to sell meth and MDMA — known as ecstasy or molly — on multiple darknet marketplaces. Investigators alleged the crew has been linked to more than 18,000 illicit drug sales to buyers throughout the globe.

An alleged meth trafficker who was a key supplier to the organization is being sought after being charged last week in Los Angeles federal court. Earlier this year, five other alleged members of the narcotics ring were arrested on federal charges, and authorities made substantial seizures of narcotics and cryptocurrency during the probe, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“These online black market websites use a variety of technologies, including the Tor network and other encryption technologies, to ensure that communications and transactions are shielded from interception and monitoring,” according to court documents filed last week in Los Angeles. “A famous dark web marketplace, Wall Street Market, operated similar to legitimate commercial websites such as Amazon and eBay, but offered illicit goods and services in exchange for virtual currencies, such as bitcoin.”

During an operation earlier this year, members of Los Angeles Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement — JCODE — executed search warrants that led to the seizure of more than 60 parcels containing narcotics that were ready to be shipped across the country, prosecutors said.

Andres Bermudez of Palmdale, 37, who allegedly was the key supplier of meth to the crew, is currently a fugitive being sought by federal authorities, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

During takedowns in Los Angeles in February, members of JCODE arrested five defendants allegedly at the center of the “Stealthgod” organization and seized about 120 pounds of meth, seven kilograms of ecstasy, and five firearms.

The five defendants arrested on federal charges are:

–Teresa McGrath, 34, of Sunland-Tujunga, who allegedly delivered dozens of narcotics-laden packages to a post office in Sunland;–Rane Melkom, 35, of Sunland-Tujunga, who shared a residence with McGrath where authorities allegedly seized more than 50 pounds of meth, nearly 15 pounds of ecstasy, about 30,000 Adderall pills, cash, and three loaded handguns;–Mark Chavez, 41, of downtown Los Angeles, whose bedroom allegedly yielded nearly 40 pounds of methamphetamine and two handguns during a search in February;–Matthew Ick, 51, of downtown Los Angeles, who is linked in court papers to a narcotics shipment to the organization; and–Thomas Olayvar, 43, of downtown Los Angeles, who allegedly was involved in the shipment of narcotics through the United States Postal Service.

McGrath has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and MDMA, possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking, and cryptocurrency money laundering, admitting that over the course of about six months she received $161,916 in bitcoin and helped disburse this money to her co-conspirators, prosecutors said.

Chavez has pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute meth and ecstasy, as well as possessing a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking.

McGrath and Chavez are scheduled to be sentenced next year, when each will face up to 15 years in federal prison.

Melkom, Ick, and Olayvar face various narcotics charges and are scheduled to go on trial next year in downtown Los Angeles.

In addition to the Stealthgod cases, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles have filed cases against other alleged darknet narcotics traffickers and those who help them convert bitcoin into gold or similar currencies. For example:

Kais Mohammad, 36, of Yorba Linda, was scheduled to plead guilty Thursday to federal charges stemming from the operation of 17 bitcoin kiosks across Southern California. In his plea agreement, Mohammad admitted that he knew that at least one of his clients was engaged in illicit activity on the dark web.

Earlier this year, three people linked to the online moniker “Aeirla” were sentenced to federal prison for conspiring to distribute meth and cocaine to customers who negotiated transactions on the darkweb. Those defendants are:

–Anh Pham, 49, of Hawaiian Gardens, who was sentenced to 80 months in federal prison;–Joseph Michael Gifford, 43, of La Crescenta, who was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment; and–Carlos Miguel Gallardo, 60, of Hawaiian Gardens, who was sentenced to serve 18 months in federal prison.

Pham sold pound quantities of meth on the darknet, while Gifford and Gallardo packaged them in toys — a beach ball, and boxes of Christmas cards and chocolates — and shipped them to customers nationwide.

Five defendants are scheduled to be tried in October 2021 in Los Angeles on various narcotics trafficking charges that allege they used the monikers “Drugpharmacist” and “RickandMortyShop” to sell cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and crack cocaine on Wall Street Market and another darknet marketplace called Dream.

Members of the conspiracy allegedly shipped narcotics in small vials concealed inside stuffed animals. The defendants scheduled to go on trial are: Jerrell Eugene Anderson, 30, of Inglewood; Christopher Canion Van Holton, 33, of Valencia; Adan Sepulveda, 28, of Lancaster; Kenneth Lashawn Hadley, 33, of Lancaster; and Jackie Walter Burns, 22, of Lancaster.

Anderson and Sepulveda face a charge of distribution of heroin resulting in death in relation to a shipment of heroin to a customer in Knoxville, Tennessee, who suffered a fatal overdose.

Kunal Kalra, 26, of Westwood, was sentenced in March to 18 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to federal narcotics and anti-money laundering charges related to his unlicensed money transmitting business that he used to exchange virtual currency for cash for darknet vendors. Prosecutors said this was the first federal case in the nation charging an unlicensed money remitting business that used a bitcoin kiosk.

A father and his son who distributed meth on the darknet using monikers such “Quartersandup” and “Colsandersdream” were sentenced to federal prison last year. William Glarner III, 65, of Huntington Beach, was convicted at trial and sentenced to 15 years. His son, William Glarner IV, 35, of Irvine, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years.

Tyler Reeves, a 30-year-old Irvine man who sold narcotics on the now-defunct Wall Street Market darknet site, was sentenced last year to 10 years in federal prison.

“Through the outstanding efforts of the JCODE Task Force, we have been able to unmask those hiding on the darknet, bringing to justice a wide array of criminals, including those operating online marketplaces, laundering cryptocurrency, and spreading drugs around the world,” U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said. “My prosecutors and their JCODE partners will continue to rein in illegal dark web activities by disrupting other traffickers and those who help them access their illicit cryptocurrency.”

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Anaheim man arrested after Placentia fire linked to marijuana honey oil operation

PLACENTIA — A 41-year-old Anaheim man was booked Wednesday on suspicion of manufacturing a controlled substance stemming from a blaze at a marijuana honey oil operation in Placentia, police said.

David Hoffman was found in front of a business that caught fire in the 700 block of Dunn Way about 8:40 a.m., Placentia police said.

Police said he told first responders there was a marijuana honey oil operation in the burning building and that there were several flammable chemicals on the premises, leading firefighters to evacuate workers in the Dunn Way Business Park as well as businesses on the 700 block of Orangethorpe Avenue.

No injuries were reported.

Anyone with information helpful to investigators was asked to call police at 714-993-8146. Orange County Crime Stoppers will accept anonymous tips at 855-TIP-OCCS.

Marijuana concentrates are a highly potent THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) concentrated mass that is similar in appearance to honey or butter, which is why it is sometimes referred to or known on the street as “honey oil” or “budder,” according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. It’s also known as “butane hash oil.” One method of manufacturing concentrates uses highly flammable butane to extract the THC from the cannabis plant.

The Register contributed to this story.

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Garden Grove man, who served time for terrorism, now accused of drug trafficking

Drug trafficking charges have been leveled against a Garden Grove man previously convicted of leading a terrorist organization that planned attacks on military installations and synagogues in Los Angeles, officials said Wednesday, July 26.

Ahmed Binyamin Alasiri, also known as Kevin Lamar James, 44, of Garden Grove, was arrested Friday, Aug. 21 and indicted Wednesday by a federal grand jury on suspicion of two felony counts of distribution of methamphetamine. The defendant allegedly sold a total of two pounds of high-grade methamphetamine for $7,400 to his housemate, an undercover FBI employee, on July 24 and Aug. 6, according to court documents.

“I have connections to every single drug you can imagine,” Alasiri said while riding in a car with the undercover FBI employee on June 11, 2020, according to court documents.

He faces between 10 years to life in prison if convicted. Alasiri made his first appearance in court on Monday, and is scheduled to appear at an arraignment hearing Sept. 14.

Alasiri was on supervised release after being sentenced in 2009 to 16 years in federal prison. He had pleaded guilty  in December 2007 to one count of conspiracy to levy war against the United States. He founded Jami’yyat Ul-Islam Is-Shaheeh (JIS), a group that planned to attack “enemies of Islam or ‘infidels,’” according to court documents.

The radical organization conducted research and made plans to attack military bases and recruitment centers, synagogues, the Israeli consulate and other targets in Los Angeles, according to court documents. Members of the group robbed 10 gas stations in Orange, Fullerton, Torrance, Bellflower, Pico Rivera, Playa Vista, Walnut and Los Angeles between May 30, 2005 and July 5, 2005.

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Anaheim man, formerly a Long Beach physician assistant, gets 18 months for illegal distribution of narcotics

LOS ANGELES — A former Long Beach physician assistant was sentenced Wednesday to 18 months behind bars and a year of home confinement for diverting dangerous narcotics to the black market.

Gabriel Hernandez, 59, was also ordered by U.S. District Judge Christine Snyder to pay a $13,000 fine, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Hernandez, who worked at a Long Beach pain management clinic known as Vortex Wellness & Aesthetics, pleaded guilty last year to a federal charge of distributing oxycodone without a legitimate medical purpose.

The Anaheim man was arrested in February 2019 as part of an investigation codenamed Hypocritical Oath, a yearlong U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration-led probe targeting doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners and clinic operators suspected of illegally providing controlled substances to so-called patients and black market customers in violation of their oaths to do no harm.

Over a two-year period that ended in November 2018, Hernandez prescribed nearly 6,000 controlled substances — more than half of which were for maximum-strength oxycodone, which means he was responsible for 446,000 oxycodone pills being dispensed.

Hernandez often wrote prescriptions for drug cocktails known on the street as the holy trinity — a narcotic, tranquilizer and/or muscle relaxant — which are sought by drug addicts and are particularly dangerous because of the threat of fatal overdose.

In 2017, according to records maintained by the state of California, Hernandez wrote a prescription for the three drugs to a 41-year-old man who died a week later from the combined effects of alcohol and two of the prescribed drugs, the criminal complaint filed in Los Angeles federal court states.

A San Diego pharmacist contacted investigators in late 2018 about suspicious and identical prescriptions Hernandez wrote to three people who appeared to be living in the same house more than a hundred miles away from the Vortex clinic.

A medical expert who reviewed data on Hernandez’s prescription history and tapes of two office visits by a law enforcement source concluded that Hernandez’s actions were “much closer to that of an illegal drug dealer than that of a physician, and the patient visits are a sham,” court papers show.

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Santa Ana detectives seek help finding parolee suspected of ramming 3 police vehicles

SANTA ANA — Authorities Wednesday asked for the public’s help in locating the parolee suspected of stealing a pickup truck and using it to intentionally ram three police vehicles outside a motel in Santa Ana.

Gang detectives attempted to contact the suspect in the parking lot of the Pueblo Motel, located at 1501 N. Harbor Blvd., south of Westminster Avenue, about 11 a.m. Monday, when the suspect stepped on the gas and sped toward detectives and civilians, according to the Santa Ana Police Department.

As the suspect, identified as Maximiliano Osorio, 23, fled, he rammed the truck into three police vehicles as he escaped onto Harbor Boulevard, the department said.

The stolen truck was later found in Garden Grove along with over 100 grams of methamphetamine, police said.

Osorio is 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 180 pounds with a medium build, short brown hair and brown eyes. He is on parole for a conviction for assault with a deadly weapon.

Anyone with information on Osorio’s whereabouts of was asked to call Santa Ana police Detective Thai at 949-407-7878 or by email at dthai@santa-ana.org

Anonymous tips can be called in to Orange County Crime Stoppers at 855- 847-6227.

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Investigators find fentanyl overdose killed OC inmate whose death generated controversy

An Orange County inmate whose death last year prompted protests and a claim against the county by his family was determined to have died of an accidental overdose after eating a fentanyl-laced “cookie” inside his cell, the District Attorney’s office said.

The D.A.’s office said Friday it found the O.C. Sheriff’s Department was not culpable for the death of 37-year-old Anthony Aceves, according to a letter and seven-page report submitted to Sheriff Don Barnes on April 10. Prosecutors said video showed another inmate passing an object under Aceves’ cell door at 8:12 p.m. on May 22.

The video from inside Theo Lacy Jail in Orange showed Aceves up and walking around his cell late the same night, but by 4:52 a.m. the next morning, when deputies checked on him, they found the man unresponsive. When they entered his cell minutes later, Aceves was “cold and without vital signs.”

Sheriff’s deputies later said they determined that Aceves ate the object — a cookie made with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opiod. An independent forensic investigator later determined Aceves’ death was the result of an accidental fentanyl overdose.

Prosecutors said they found no evidence that sheriff’s deputies in the jail “failed to perform a legal duty causing the death of Aceves.”

“The evidence shows that Aceves died as a result of an accidental drug overdose and that the death was a natural one,” the prosecutors wrote in the report.

Humberto Guizar, an attorney for the mother of Aceves, who filed a $5 million wrongful-death claim against the county last year, disputed the D.A.’s office findings. He said deputies in the jail ignored Aceves’ severe mental health issues, including his diagnosis for schizophrenia, and that they “acted with deliberate indifference to a known medical condition.”

After Aceves was arrested for violating his probation in Santa Ana on April 22, he was taken to a mental health facility. Two days later on April 24, the custody officials at the O.C. Inmate Reception Center cleared him to be transferred to regular housing. But he was still under protective custody until his death about a month later, according to the D.A.’s report.

Guizar said Aceves should never have been allowed to return to the jail’s regular housing. He said sheriff’s deputies “in an indirect way caused (Aceves’) death.”

The D.A.’s office laid out the timeline of the events leading to the death of Aceves.

In the afternoon and into the evening of May 22, Aceves was walking around his cell and sector, talking to other inmates. By 8 p.m., Aceves took medication for seizures, depression and anxiety.

The report said Aceves was seen walking around his cell at around 11 p.m., hours after the other inmate passed the cookie to him.

His cellmate heard Aceves snoring loudly throughout the night, according to the report. After the deputies found Aceves unresponsive during a regular check at 4:52 a.m., they performed CPR on him.

The report doesn’t state the timeline of the deputies’ response, but says that at 5:05 a.m. — 13 minutes later — Orange Fire Department paramedics reached him. The paramedics determined Aceves was in cardiac arrest, and took him to the UCI Medical Center Emergency Room. He was pronounced dead at 5:47 a.m.

In its report, the D.A.’s office said there was no evidence of criminal negligence in sheriff’s deputies’ handling of Aceves’ death. That was despite the presence and distribution of drugs within the cell block.

“There is certainly evidence supporting a conclusion that drugs were unlawfully present inside the jail, and that certain inmates were involved in providing such drugs,” the D.A.’s office wrote.

They said O.C. prosecutors wouldn’t “be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt criminal culpability” in the Sheriff’s Department failing to confiscate the drugs that killed Aceves.

City News Service contributed to this story.

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Man charged with manslaughter in double-fatal O.C. crash dies of overdose

WESTMINSTER — A man who was charged in a drunken driving crash that killed a mother and her 9-year-old daughter on New Year’s Day last year in Garden Grove died late last year of a drug overdose, court records obtained Tuesday show.


Multiple vehicles were involved in a crash on the 22 Freeway in Garden Grove on Tuesday, January 1, 2019. (Photo by Southern Counties News)

Melvin Cleveland Branch, who turned 30 on New Year’s Eve 2018, overdosed on fentanyl on Dec. 29, according to court records.

The former Maryland resident, who lived in Orange at the time of the crash, was charged in January 2019 with two counts of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and one count each of driving under the influence of alcohol causing bodily injury and driving with a blood alcohol of .08 percent or more causing bodily injury — all felonies — and one misdemeanor count each of resisting/obstructing an officer and assault on a peace officer.

Branch had also faced sentencing enhancement allegations of causing bodily injury and death to multiple victims and fleeing the scene of a crime. He would have faced a maximum sentence of 20 years and eight months in state prison if convicted.

In video footage of Branch’s arrest, aired in news reports, he could be seen struggling with officers.

Branch’s attorney, Mark Fredrick was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday, but previously told reporters that Branch had never had any run-ins with the law before and was “extremely scared” at the time.

Fredrick said when his client learned of the charges, he “insisted on turning himself in as early as possible” and had “expressed nothing but total sadness” about the victims.

He said Branch, a cable installer, did not learn anyone was hurt in the 12:50 a.m. crash until he was in the police station following his arrest.

Killed in the collision on the Garden Grove (22) Freeway east of Valley View Street were 33-year-old Jolene Gardner and her 9-year-old daughter Payton Castillo, who were on their way home to Hawthorne from a New Year’s Eve gathering at the time, according to a GoFundMe fundraising page set up to help their family.

The girl died at the scene and her mother was pronounced dead at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange about an hour after the crash.

Branch was driving a BMW on the freeway east of Springdale Street at an “extremely high rate of speed” in the HOV lane when he rear-ended a Lexus multiple times, causing the driver to lose control and slam into the right shoulder sound barrier wall, the CHP reported.

The Lexus driver escaped injury, but Branch then rear-ended Gardner’s 2010 Ford F-150 pickup truck, which rolled over onto its right side and skidded across the freeway into a 2003 Mazda 3 and then struck a guardrail bordering the right shoulder, the CHP reported. The Mazda driver also escaped injury.

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Long Beach man gets 30-year sentence for meth-fueled fatal crash in Fullerton

SANTA ANA — A Long Beach man pleaded guilty and was immediately sentenced Friday to 30 years in prison for a methamphetamine-fueled crash in a stolen vehicle that killed a Montana man and critically injured another victim in Fullerton.

 


Police arrested Randy Lamar Wilkins, 39, of Long Beach, on suspicion of driving a stolen vehicle while under the influence of drugs during a collision in Fullerton that left one person dead on Monday, April 1, 2019. One other person was injured in the crash that happened near Euclid Street and Valencia Drive at about 9:51 a.m. (Photo Courtesy of the Fullerton Police Department)

Randy Lamar Wilkins, 40, also pleaded guilty to bringing methamphetamine into the Fullerton jail following his arrest.

Wilkins admitted a felony count each of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, driving under the influence of a drug causing injury, buying or receiving a stolen vehicle and smuggling a drug into a jail, along with a misdemeanor count of driving on a suspended license, with a sentencing enhancement for inflicting great bodily injury on the victim who survived.

The crash occurred at 9:51 a.m. April 1 in front of Charlie’s Best restaurant at the intersection of Euclid Street and Valencia Drive.

Police said the driver of a stolen Toyota Highlander T-boned a Honda Accord, killing 44-year-old Bryan Tyler Kirst of Missoula, who was a passenger in the Honda, whose driver was hospitalized with “significant but non-life-threatening injuries.”

Fullerton police Lt. Jon Radus said police were initially called at 9:38 a.m. regarding a reckless driver at Orangethorpe Avenue and Brookhurst Road, but before officers arrived, they were notified about a driver “acting erratically” at Brookhurst and Valencia. The crash occurred minutes later.

Wilkins was speeding eastbound on Valencia before broadsiding the Accord, Radus said. The Highlander was reported stolen out of Long Beach, he said.

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Man pleads guilty to voluntary manslaughter in Garden Grove stabbing case dating to 1985

SANTA ANA — A 64-year-old man pleaded guilty Monday to voluntary manslaughter in a drug-related killing of a young man in the mid-1980s in Garden Grove.

Under the plea agreement, Jesus Menchaca is expected to be sentenced to 11 years in prison on Jan. 6, said Senior Deputy District Attorney Scott Simmons.

Eight witnesses have died over the years, making it more difficult to prosecute the case, Simmons said.

The 20-year-old victim, Scott Raymond Hall, was stabbed to death on Dec. 19, 1985, in the 12600 block of Sunswept Avenue during a drug deal gone bad, according to Garden Grove police.

Menchaca was initially charged with killing Hall in 1992, but the case was dropped for lack of evidence. The investigation was revived in 2015 and new technology helped prosecutors build a case that year based on DNA evidence.

Sentencing was put off until January so Hall’s family members can make victim impact statements.

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Deputies shut down alleged butane honey oil drug lab in Anaheim

Authorities on Thursday shut down a suspected drug lab in a residential neighborhood in Anaheim that allegedly used explosive butane gas to manufacture a concentrated form of cannabis.

After serving a search warrant around noon inside a house at 113 N. Tustin Ave., deputies found evidence of the illicit production of butane honey oil (BHO), a highly potent extract of marijuana, Orange County sheriff’s Sgt. Joses Walehwa said.

Deputies took two people into custody in connection with the alleged drug lab on suspicion of narcotics-related charges. Their names were not immediately released.

#OCSDPIO Today at approximately noon, deputies executed a narcotics-related search warrant in the 100 block of N. Tustin Ave in Anaheim. During the search, deputies located materials and chemicals consistent with a butane honey oil lab. Two suspects are in custody. pic.twitter.com/3KM5T1FaLh

— OC Sheriff, CA (@OCSheriff) October 17, 2019

BHO is produced by using flammable butane or propane gas as a solvent to extract and distill that plant’s active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The unlicensed manufacture of the drug has been linked to multiple fires and explosions in Orange County and elsewhere in Southern California.

Details regarding the amount of finished BHO was recovered from the home searched Thursday was not immediately released. The building is in a residential area near the intersection of North Tustin Avenue and East Santa Ana Canyon Road, and surrounded by other houses.

No injuries were reported during the search.

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