Harrison Pot Sting Linked To Major Crime
by Kim Bolan, Vancouver Sun, (30 Jun 2006) Vancouver Sun British Columbia
Hells Angels; The Mafia; Asian gangs
BELLINGHAM, Wash. - An unprecedented two-year U.S.-Canada investigation into helicopter drug smuggling linked to crime syndicates -- ranging from bikers to the mob -- has led to 46 arrests and the seizure of marijuana and cocaine worth nearly $40 million.
Law enforcement officials from both countries called Operation Frozen Timber a major blow to organized crime groups that had developed a sophisticated scheme to move large quantities of B.C. pot into the United States via helicopters and small airplanes.
The aircraft would land clandestinely in small clearings carved by the smugglers in remote forest areas across Washington state.
"The deck was stacked against the investigators," said Julie Myers, the assistant secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "One smuggler was quoted as saying they were better than FedEx and delivered anywhere in Washington state."
Myers joined representatives of the RCMP, the Washington State Patrol, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Forest Service at a news conference in a hangar in Bellingham, in front of a helicopter and small plane used in the operation.
The agencies unveiled extraordinary video surveillance of helicopters dropping off hundreds of kilograms of pot for waiting couriers as investigators with cameras hid in nearby bushes.
"These smuggling networks compromised the interest of our international borders and literally took border smuggling to new heights," Myers said.
In total, investigators seized more than 3,600 kilograms of marijuana and 365 kilograms of cocaine.
John McKay, the U.S. attorney for the western district of Washington, said plainly: "These organized crime groups are motivated by one thing - --greed.
"With Operation Frozen Timber, we not only cut into their profits with countless seizures of drugs and money, we demonstrated that there is a high price to pay."
The Canadian part of the investigation was dubbed E-Printer and focused on the alleged kingpin of the crime group, 44-year-old Daryl Desjardins.
As The Vancouver Sun revealed Thursday, Desjardins ran a popular up-scale restaurant called the Breakwater on the beachfront at Harrison Lake until police moved in on his operation last month.
The controversial businessman, who was found in the U.S. to have pocketed millions in a stock fraud scheme, remains in custody, as does his co-accused, Dustin Melvin Haugen, 24.
The Sun has learned that police believe Desjardins was the middleman for several organized crime groups, including the Hells Angels, the Mafia and Indo-Canadian and Asian gangsters. Police say many of the criminals partied at Desjardins' restaurant, leaving luxury vehicles such as Hummers, Ferraris, Vipers and Harleys in the parking lot.
"He operated almost solely as a broker to organized crime," RCMP Insp. Dan Malo of the Integrated Border Enforcement Team said in an interview. "He had a helicopter and he would fly for all the different groups."
But Desjardins' high-flying life was grounded May 9 when he and Haugen allegedly returned from a cross-border run in the Bell JetRanger he kept in a tin shed beside the Breakwater.
Agents had tracked the aircraft from its U.S. destination -- a state wildlife area in Okanogan County where 150 kilograms of marijuana had been dropped. Two men were arrested on the U.S. side of the border after they loaded the pot into a pickup truck and attempted to drive away.
As the JetRanger touched down in the parking lot beside the restaurant, Desjardins and Haugen were nabbed and the helicopter seized.
They face charges of importing and exporting marijuana and trafficking marijuana, while Desjardins has also been charged with possession of a firearm. They are in jail.
Haugen also remains under police investigation in connection with a March 2005 incident in which he was allegedly behind the controls of another Bell JetRanger when it crashed on liftoff, killing his 22-year-old girlfriend. He fled the scene, but was later located by police.
The U.S. drug ring leader, Robert Kessling, was sentenced to 17 years in jail for his role in the trafficking conspiracy involving 149 kilograms of cocaine and more than 181 kilograms of B.C. pot.
The joint operation intercepted 17 separate drug shipments, including Washington state's largest cocaine seizure of last year -- 149 kilograms packed into five suitcases -- in February 2005.
Malo said more arrests are expected on the Canadian side of the border as the probe continues.
A major danger to the public is the fact that many of the pilots are unlicensed and flying old helicopters that had been sold for scrap and are no longer airworthy. They fly low, under radar, to avoid detection, increasing the risk of crashes.
Not only did Haugen's girlfriend die last year in an accident, but two other suspected helicopter smugglers also crashed near Hope last September after returning from a suspected smuggling flight to the U.S.
"Make no mistake; these criminal organizations pose a threat to our safe homes and communities. Pilots were flying unsafe aircraft often at dangerously low altitudes," said RCMP Chief Supt. Bud Mercer.
"The violent nature of these organized crime groups and the high-powered weapons they were in possession of posed a direct threat to the citizens of Canada and the United States."
But Mercer also stressed the greater danger is the "cultural damage" that the illicit drug trade is doing to communities.
Few details were released about the 40 people facing charges in the U.S. or the six arrested in Canada. So far, only Desjardins and Haugen have been charged on this side of the border.
But many of those arrested in the U.S. also appear to be Canadian, from a Sun review of court records. Eight of the 40 are awaiting extradition.
The U.S. court records obtained by The Sun show a similar pattern of aircraft drops and deliveries and a sophisticated cross-border network of conspirators who use radios and BlackBerrys to communicate. Those involved claimed they would be paid $150 a pound to arrange the shipments or pick up the dope and deliver it to locations across Washington state.
Take the case of Jake Humphrey, Paul McCluskey and Shane Menzel, three B.C. men who were nabbed in Washington state last September.
First, law enforcement agents saw suspicious tree-clearing by non-forest service employees in the woods near Darrington, Skagit County last Sept. 6.
About 9:30 a.m. the next day, McCluskey and Humphrey each drove a vehicle towards the cleared area --a suspected helicopter landing zone - -- as agents watched. They waited in two separate locations. An hour later, a Robinson R-22 helicopter appeared above them, landing close to where McCluskey was standing. The pilot, Menzel, got out as McCluskey removed two large hockey bags from the passenger side. He then opened side compartments on the helicopter's skids and began removing vacuum-sealed bags of marijuana. Menzel began refuelling the helicopter from two containers at the scene.
The U.S. agents moved in and grabbed them. McCluskey was holding a Cobra radio.
As the agents moved in on Humphrey, they heard a voice on McCluskey's radio asking "Is everything okay?"
It wasn't. Humphrey was arrested.
Menzel later told authorities that he had flown three earlier trips, each time working with McCluskey, who had crossed the border into Washington to pick up the marijuana. Menzel admitted to taking a package of cash back to Canada on one trip.
Humphrey and McCluskey would drive separately across the border about half an hour a part. They would meet at the Denny's restaurant parking lot in Bellingham, and rent a vehicle to head out to the loading zone.
All three have now pleaded guilty and are serving sentences.