Friday, February 21, 1997
Feds expose drugs-by-mail ring
Hundreds arrested in nationwide crackdown

Copyright 1997, The Cincinnati Enquirer

U.S. Postal Inspector R. Michael Smith checks a package at the Cincinnati /Norhtern Kentucky International Airport Post Office.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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The largest national drug investigation ever by postal inspectors has proved what many had feared for years: the U.S. Postal Service is a major courier for the world's dope peddlers.

The ongoing effort, which involves 23 postal divisions around the nation - including Cincinnati - has produced hundreds of arrests, millions in seized cash and assets and exposed links to several international drug cartels, The Enquirer has learned.

The investigation targeted packages sent through the Postal Service's overnight Express Mail, a favorite next-day delivery system for the dope dealers, say postal inspectors.

Those dealers are connected to such groups as the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang, underground militia and white supremacist organizations, La Cosa Nostra (the Mafia), and various organized-crime ethnic gangs with links to Russia, China, Jamaica, Thailand, Vietnam, Mexico and Colombia, postal inspection and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigative records show.

So far, according to postal inspection records obtained by The Enquirer, between Oct. 1, 1996, and Feb. 14, inspectors have:

  • Arrested at least 618 drug dealers.

  • Seized more than $15.4 million in drug-related cash, money orders and cashier checks; eight houses; 25 vehicles, five power boats; and 25 firearms.

  • Intercepted more than a thousand packages containing 4.1 tons of marijuana; 82 pounds of methamphetamine; 65 pounds of cocaine; 15 pounds of LSD/psychedelic mushrooms; 14 pounds of heroin; and three pounds of PCP. any dollar value to the drugs? - added to graf below

  • Seized varying amounts of steroids, crack, prescription and designer street drugs, including Ketamine - a cat tranquilizer that causes a psychedelic high in humans. Authorities estimate the street value of the seized drugs to be more than $25 million.

Postal authorities say more arrests and drug confiscations are expected as the investigation continues.

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The national operation, which began in October, has been kept ''super secret'' to protect inspectors involved in package seizures, undercover deliveries and arrests, according to postal inspection officials in Washington, D.C.

The Enquirer has been following the national drug investigation since it was launched and has been provided internal postal inspection and DEA documents from the agencies' Washington headquarters and inspectors nationwide.

Postal Inspector John R. Sinnen, who coordinated the national probe from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service's Washington headquarters, called the effort ''very successful'' in memos to the agency's deputy chief inspector, Mike Boswell.

The FBI and DEA also are using information from the postal probe to aid in their own investigations into U.S. narcotics operations and foreign drug cartels, according to FBI and DEA officials.

DEA officials cannot comment on the agency's involvement in the postal inspection cases ''because what we are doing is ongoing,'' said Van Quarles, DEA spokesman in Washington, D.C.

Gary Oetjen, DEA resident agent in charge of the Cincinnati area, said commenting about any aspect of ongoing investigations linked to the postal probe ''would jeopardize agents and the cases.''

FBI spokesman Paul Bresson in Washington also said it was FBI policy not to comment on any ongoing drug investigations tied to the postal probe.

Helping the postal inspectors are National Guard troops from around the nation - including the Ohio National Guard from Columbus under Maj. Robert Baylor. The soldiers are checking addresses on the drug packages; creating drug sender and recipient databases; and helping to examine Express Mail packages to see if they fit the drug profile. They are prohibited from arresting people or from carrying weapons while on duty.

''The National Guard personnel have been extremely helpful in our efforts to stop the drug flow,'' said Rick Bowdren, the Cincinnati Division's postal inspector in charge.

The drug packages seized represent only a fraction of the tens of millions of packages handled by the U.S. Postal Service annually, according to Mr. Bowdren.

And the drug packages being seized are thought to be only a small amount of the drugs that continue to be shipped through the mail system, say postal inspectors in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta.

Operation Ski launched

A major component of the overall investigation was dubbed ''Operation Ski,'' and specifically targeted packages shipped from Los Angeles, and later New York. Operation Ski was launched in October when scores of inspectors from around the nation went to the Los Angeles and San Diego areas to seize suspected drug and cash packages being shipped from there.

Those areas were targeted because postal inspectors around the country routinely found major drug shipments in overnight Express Mail that originated from there.

Supplied with federal search warrants, drug-sniffing dogs, and intelligence on where drug dealers were most often mailing packages from, the postal inspectors began Phase I.

The effort had inspectors pulling out packages that fit a drug-package profile of specific size, weight and style of address labels from a moving line of millions of packages in six postal package clearinghouse offices in California. Those offices serve more than 100 post offices in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas.

According to affidavits used to obtain federal search warrants, once a package was pulled, a trained drug-sniffing dog had to ''hit'' on it before it could be opened.

Immediately, Operation Ski proved successful.

During Phase I's three-week run, inspectors grabbed $700,000 in drug-related cash; 2 tons of marijuana; 16 pounds of cocaine; 7 pounds of methamphetamine; and various weights of other narcotics.

''Phase I was designed only as a drug interdiction effort, not for arrests,'' said Larry Crawford, Los Angeles postal inspector in charge, who headed Operation Ski. Postal ''divisions around the country also were ordered to step up their interdiction and controlled delivery efforts as well during this time.''

A controlled delivery is when postal inspectors hand-deliver a known drug package to an address and then arrest the recipient after he or she signs for it.

Nationwide arrests

Expecting the drug dealers to realize that a federal investigation was under way when their dope shipments didn't arrive as planned, postal inspectors said they anticipated a drop in the amount of drugs and cash that would be seized in Phase II of the operation.

Expanding the operation for Phase II, postal inspectors began seizing both incoming and outgoing drug and cash packages in Los Angeles and New York City for a seven-day period in December.

Phase II netted more than $273,000 in drug-related cash; 945 pounds of marijuana; and various weights of PCP, cocaine, heroin, and prescription drugs.

Postal inspectors, led by Mr. Crawford, then launched Phase III, expanding the interdiction efforts to 20 additional cities across the country, including Cincinnati, between Feb. 3-14. Authorities also began arresting drug dealers nationwide through controlled deliveries, according to Mr. Crawford.

''We ran a very successful investigation with a lot of help from inspectors around the country,'' said Los Angeles Postal Inspector Thomas Dugan.

In addition to Los Angeles, New York and Cincinnati, the cities targeted in Operation Ski included Cleveland; Boston; Atlanta; Detroit; Tampa, Fla.; St. Louis; Chicago; Buffalo, N.Y.; Richmond, Va.; St. Paul, Minn.; Miami; Philadelphia; Memphis, Tenn.; Kansas City, Kan.; New Orleans; Pittsburgh; Newark, N.J.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Washington.

Postal Inspection Service records show that during Phase III, postal inspectors netted more than $259,000 in cash; 1,062 pounds of marijuana; 16 pounds of cocaine; 7 pounds of methamphetamine; and other illegal narcotics.

''All combined, Operation Ski resulted in seizures of $1,232,000 in drug cash; 6,000 pounds of marijuana; 32 pounds of cocaine; 14 pounds of methamphetamine; and other amounts of heroin and other narcotics,'' said Mr. Crawford.

The arrests and drugs seized during Operation Ski were only a portion of the Postal Inspection Service's overall national drug effort since October.

''This national effort by the Postal Inspection Service is the largest and most successful operation ever initiated by our agency,'' said Mr. Bowdren. ''We've successfully interdicted not only large quantities of illegal narcotics, but significant drug-cash shipments as well - both nationally and in the Cincinnati Division.''

The Cincinnati Division includes the Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus and Louisville areas.

Intelligence obtained by postal inspectors and the DEA reveals that drug dealers quickly learned they were losing large quantities of their drug mail shipments after Operation Ski began, and took steps to continue filling their drug pipelines.

According to postal inspection and DEA records, those drug operators began flocking to private overnight package delivery services, primarily Federal Express and UPS.

Spokesmen for both private delivery services declined to discuss their security measures to prevent drug shipments or say whether they experienced an increase in suspected drug package shipments from their respective Los Angeles and New York offices during Operation Ski.