Federal drug agents in Mobile snared a midlevel drug dealer in 2004 as part of an international Ecstasy sweep, and they've been working their way up the ladder ever since.
The resulting investigation has led to the convictions of more than 40 people and charges against several more, according to Darryl Wilson, a Bayou La Batre police captain who has worked closely with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The man whose arrest started it all, a Vietnamese native named Hung The Pham, was the first of 20 locals rounded up as part of a sting known as "Operation Candybox." Investigators said at the time that they were targeting an organization responsible for importing as much as 15 percent of America's Ecstasy by way of Toronto.
The most recent arrests connected to Pham have come in the past month, including a former Mobile man described as Pham's supplier.
Sometimes associated with all-night rave parties, Ecstasy is a stimulant that gives a feeling of euphoria. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it can also speed up the heart rate, raise blood pressure and increase the risk of liver, kidney or cardiovascular failure.
Pham, who is serving a 15½-year sentence, allegedly supervised a network of dealers who peddled the drugs in clubs and other spots in Mobile and throughout the coast.
Wilson estimated that the dealers attached to the network and various offshoots sold hundreds of thousands of pills at prices of $12 to $25 a pop.
Perhaps the most significant arrest so far was that of Thanh Ngoc Nguyen, 28, who Wilson said supplied Pham and others. He is named in a 74-count indictment handed down by federal grand jury in March.
Another purported Ecstasy dealer named in the indictment, Phong Quoc Le, was arrested in Hagerstown, Md., in late May. A federal judge in Baltimore on May 27 ordered Le to be transferred to Mobile.
Nguyen's lawyer, Joe Reed, said his client is innocent and does not even know Le.
The indictment describes a conspiracy to sell Ecstasy in southwest Alabama from early 2002 to March, when the superceding indictment was issued.
It lists 54 separate Ecstasy transactions beginning in September 2004 and ending in April 2008.
Many of the Ecstasy sales described in the indictment occurred within 1,000 feet of schools, which would trigger tougher penalties upon conviction.
The indictment also accuses several defendants of depositing drug proceeds in an account at Imperial Palace Casino in Biloxi. It lists 15 such deposits from March 2006 to September 2007, totaling $243,200.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Coody in Montgomery referenced those transactions as a factor in his decision to keep Nguyen in jail. The evidence shows that notwithstanding his meager reported income the defendant has access to large amounts of cash; therefore, it is not possible to fashion any condition which the defendant could not evade in continuing drug sales, he wrote.
Reed disputed the judge's finding and said he hopes to be able revisit the detention issue after Nguyen is arraigned in Mobile.
He said that investigators offered no proof that the money came from drug sales. What's more, he said, the casino deposits are 3 years old.
He had access to large amounts of money at one time, maybe at that time, Reed said. But he doesn't have access to large sums of money now.
June 06, 2010