Six men were charged Tuesday for their alleged roles in a major drug organization that has brought large quantities of meth, fentanyl, heroin and cocaine from California into Western Washington, according to King County prosecutors.
Though the Sinaloa cartel isn't named in charging documents, Burien police and King County sheriff's detectives said last week that the men arrested in coordinated stings Dec. 21 worked for the cartel, which smuggles illicit drugs over the southern U.S. border, which are then distributed all over the country.
The local group, which included at least nine people, operated in Lewis, Thurston, Grays Harbor, King, Snohomish, Pierce, Mason and Kitsap counties, according to charging papers.
Senior Deputy Prosecutor Candice Duclos, who aids the King County Sheriff's Office with large-scale drug investigations, said Tuesday's charges are the culmination of a yearlong investigation. Four people allegedly involved in the organization were arrested in April and drugs and cash were seized, but Duclos said those cases were not sent to prosecutors in order to safeguard the continuing investigation.
By September, detectives learned through a confidential informant that the group was back in business, though with different players, cars and drug houses, Duclos said by phone Tuesday.
"It's striking that you can take so much drugs and money away from them and they're back in business. It doesn't disrupt them — it's just a minor annoyance," Duclos said, adding she expects more arrests and charges from the investigation. "I hate to be pessimistic but these organizations get money and people and they're right back to work."
All six men arrested last week remain jailed in lieu of bail, ranging from $10,000 to $500,000, records show. Duclos noted in charging documents the men, who are all Mexican nationals, don't have any ties to King County and if released, "it is reasonable to believe they would flee the area and be replaced by the drug trafficking organization (with) other individuals, never to be seen again."
Detectives used tracking devices and followed members of the group through the course of the investigation, which began with the arrest of a person who agreed to work as a confidential informant to avoid felony charges, according to prosecutors. The informant made police-controlled drug purchases and gave detectives information on the group's operation that proved to be accurate, say charging papers.
After the April arrests, detectives in October followed another man involved with the group, 26-year-old Angel Valenzuala Duarte, to Burien, where they watched him buy a 2014 Chevrolet Cruze, the charges say. He drove the Cruze out of state on Nov. 1 and detectives in King County contacted law enforcement officials in Lewis County, who intercepted Valenzuala in Centralia on his return trip the next day, say the charges.
Centralia police and the Joint Narcotics Enforcement Team found 108 pounds of meth, 340,000 fentanyl pills and 19 pounds of fentanyl mixed with cocaine inside the Cruze, the charges say.
Valenzuala was charged in Lewis County with three counts of possession of illegal narcotics with intent to deliver and remains jailed in lieu of $1 million bail, said Duclos. She explained detectives in King County asked Lewis County to handle the case against Valenzuala so others involved in the group wouldn't realize "King County was on to them."
Rafael Salomon Orduno and Sabas Salomon Castro, both 25, are the alleged leaders of the group that operated out of two houses in Des Moines, say the charges. They were arrested after leaving the Economy Inn in Auburn and detectives found more than $460,000 in cash, bundled in shoe boxes inside a suitcase, in the BMW they were driving, charging papers say.
They each face one charge of conspiracy to commit violation of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act. Orduno remains jailed in lieu of $25,000 bail, while Castro remains jailed in lieu of $500,000 bail.
After Orduno and Castro's arrests, the men agreed to walk detectives into a house on 19th Avenue South in Des Moines to avoid a forced entry because investigators knew there were children inside, say charging papers.
Detectives decided not to arrest a woman described in charging papers as the "housekeeper" responsible for safeguarding the drugs stored there because "there were 5 minors" inside the house, the charges say. The woman and children were allowed to leave while detectives searched the house, where they found 184 pounds of meth, 34,000 fentanyl pills, a 2-pound brick of fentanyl powder, a small amount of heroin and roughly $9,500 cash, according to charging papers.
The four other men charged Tuesday are alleged "drug runners" for the group, say the charges. Three of the four were arrested as they were leaving motels in Tacoma, Edmonds and Des Moines, while the fourth was arrested leaving a second drug house in Des Moines, the charges say. Cash and drugs were found in all their vehicles.
The others charged in the case are Jose Castro Urias, 23; Mario Renteria Gutierrez, 23; Edward Escamilla-Benitez, 20; and Jesus Herrera-Ungson, 20. They are each charged with conspiracy to commit violation of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act and violation of the same act.
Renteria Gutierrez remains jailed in lieu of $10,000 bail while the others remain jailed in lieu of $500,000 bail each.
The six men charged Tuesday are scheduled to be arraigned Jan. 9.
An earlier version of this story published in The Seattle Times incorrectly reported the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office was involved in the arrests and drug seizures.