VAN NUYS DRUGPORT? TRAFFICKERS USED CHARTER JET SERVICE, AUTHORITIES SAY; 8 ARRESTS MADE.
A major Mexican drug-smuggling ring operated for years through Van Nuys Airport, where a charter jet company provided pickup and delivery services for at least three years without interference from customs agents or police, federal officials said Thursday.
Eight people were arrested as part of Operation Jamaican Express West, a two-year, multiagency investigation that focused on the activities of SmoothAir Aviation of Van Nuys. The suspects transported marijuana, cocaine and other drugs concealed in music-instrument cases and suitcases, federal agents said.
In a criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office, the charter company's co-owner Clarence Adolphus, 46, of Moorpark, is accused of telling Mexican drug traffickers they should use SmoothAir because his jets, unlike passenger planes at major airports, were not subject to police searches.
``There's a certain ingenuity in terms of offering this service to drug couriers,'' said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office. ``He would tell people they could avoid detection.''
The investigation was launched in late 2002 after authorities seized 560 pounds of marijuana, valued at more than $1 million, and $854,000 in cash from two SmoothAir jets. Authorities said they later linked Adolphus and Lester Aubrey Bull, 40, of Diamond Bar, who is a fugitive, to large cocaine shipments in 2001.
In November 2003, federal agents seized a huge shipment of drugs - including 345 pounds of marijuana and 20,000 tablets of the rave drug Ecstacy - that was supposed to be transported from Van Nuys to Atlanta aboard a flight Adolphus is accused of arranging.
Authorities said the shipment was owned by Mauricio Torres, 31, of Compton, who was among the suspects arrested Thursday. He and co-defendant Daniel Franco-Acuna, 35, of Norwalk are suspected of being high-ranking members of a drug ring with ties to Guadalajara, Mexico, officials said.
A criminal complaint filed March 26 accused Adolphus, Bull, Torres and Franco-Acuna, along with Juan Franco, 33, of Maywood; Pablo Rodolfo Miranda, 38, of Compton; and Ramon Castillo Martinez, 32, of Los Angeles of money laundering and conspiracy to distribute controlled substances.
Also arrested Thursday were Blossom Marie Thorndike, 26, of Moorpark and Marybeth Emberland, 45, of Woodland Hills, who were charged with structuring cash transactions.
The six men were being held without bail, and Emberland and Thorndike were being held in lieu of $25,000 bail. Their arraignments were set for April 19.
Incorporation documents filed with the state list Craig Emberland of Woodland Hills as president of SmoothAir. Craig Emberland, who was not named in the criminal complaint, has an unlisted telephone number and could not be reached for comment.
Although investigators claim that SmoothAir used Van Nuys Airport to smuggle drugs for at least the past three years, officials at the city- owned airport have no record of the company's being based there, spokeswoman Linda Green said. The company's incorporation papers list an address on Vanowen Street as its headquarters, but there was no sign of the company there Thursday.
Investigators believe Franco-Acuna and Miranda worked for the Guadalajaran drug smugglers, Mrozek said. Martinez is accused of transporting the drugs seized in November 2003, and Thorndike and Marybeth Emberland are employees of SmoothAir accused of depositing large amounts of cash received from the smugglers, he said.
The investigation involved agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and others.
``These guys were facilitators,'' DEA spokesman Jose Martinez said. ``This business was providing the means to transport any kind of commodity from foreign countries to the United States.''
Companies that fly between the United States and foreign countries are required to notify the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, although it was unclear whether SmoothAir had done so, customs spokesman Michael Fleming said.
Cargo and passengers are inspected at random, he said.
``They have to report when they're arriving and leaving,'' he said. ``We don't necessarily inspect every flight.''
Andrea Cavanaugh, (805) 583-7602