Thursday, April 28, 2011

Delta rampers arrested at Detroit Metro Airport for drug smuggling

Federal agents toppled two separate drug rings today run by baggage handlers who allegedly imported marijuana and cocaine from Jamaica and Houston while working at Detroit Metro Airport.

Twelve people — including 10 baggage handlers — were arrested early today in an investigation dubbed "Operation Excess Baggage" and accused of exploiting weaknesses at several airports to run drug-smuggling pipelines since at least 2009.

Complaints filed in federal court in Detroit — where nine defendants were ordered held behind bars until at least Friday — describe intricate drug-smuggling rings that used crude tactics, an exotic locale and employee access to bypass security and transport hundreds of pounds of illegal drugs to Detroit's streets.

The arrests follow an investigation that has lasted more than a year and involves investigators from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

"We can't have people working in and around aircraft exploiting their positions for criminal ends," ICE Director John Morton said. "For those on the inside thinking about abusing their access to planes for money, think again. We are watching. We are looking."

The 10 Delta employees worked as baggage handlers and were aided by two associates. Of those arrested, 10 are from Michigan, one is from Houston and one is from California.

"We have fully cooperated with federal authorities in this matter," Delta spokeswoman Susan Elliott said. "Delta does not tolerate employees found using their position for illegal activity and these employees have been suspended without pay. Additional disciplinary action could be taken pending the final outcome of the investigation."

The defendants are accused of drug trafficking and facing charges that include drug conspiracy, possession with intent to distribute and illegal importation of narcotics.

Possible penalties vary by drug amounts. If convicted, the defendants face anywhere from five years to life in prison and up to a $10 million fine.

The Jamaica case dates to January 2010 when a federal agent in Jamaica contacted another agent locally about the seizure of about 53 pounds of marijuana discovered inside a suitcase that was about to be placed on Northwest Airlines flight No. 2321 bound for Detroit.

The suitcase had a seemingly legitimate baggage tag bearing the name of an unidentified person who was an unwitting participant in the smuggling attempt, according to court records.

Federal agents let the plane depart for Detroit.

While in the air, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and the Homeland Security Department decided to intercept all baggage once the plane landed in Detroit before baggage handlers could touch them.

Investigators focused on five suitcases. Inside, agents found approximately 35 pounds of cocaine and almost 284 pounds of marijuana, according to court records.

Investigators soon learned each of the suitcases carried tags prepared by an airline employee named Marion Minto-Goolgar, 38, stationed in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

The Jamaica case relied on several handlers in Detroit who were born in Jamaica.

The handlers used crude methods to identify drug-filled suitcases. The luggage was marked with either a red X or had white and black bags wrapped around the handles or zip ties.

Glenford Earl-Anthony Stephens, a Jamaican-born naturalized U.S. citizen working at Detroit Metro Airport, coordinated shipments into Detroit, according to court records. He paid fellow baggage handlers to remove luggage from the belly of flights landing in Detroit, according to court records.

The bags were placed on domestic conveyer belts instead of international baggage belts to avoid detection.

Stephens, who lives in Lathrup Village, or others would then remove the bags and place them in vehicles, according to court records.

Prosecutors say Stephens was involved in smuggling since at least 2009.

Other defendants arrested Thursday used similar methods.

Dearborn Heights resident Kevin Jernigan took over for Stephens in early 2010, according to court records. An informant told investigators Jernigan would place drug-filled luggage into a pick-up truck before delivering it to unknown recipients in Metro Detroit, according to court records.

Three other Detroit baggage handlers who hailed from Jamaica also received drug shipments, according to court records.

Dearborn resident Rex Lee, another baggage handler of Jamaican descent, also was involved with his fellow countrymen, according to court records.

The Houston pipeline used similar methods and operated separately, but simultaneously, according to prosecutors.

Court records chronicle a key date in the Houston-to-Detroit pipeline in March 2010.

On March 18, undercover investigators watched Saginaw resident Kelvin Atwater pick up two black duffle bags from the luggage carousel at Detroit Metro Airport and load them into a black Chevrolet Tahoe. Behind the wheel was a second man, Detroit resident Clifford Skinner, according to court records.

Agents trailed the men as they traveled along the Southfield Freeway. Detroit police pulled them over north of Fenkell, searched the SUV and found two large bricks inside the duffel bags containing more than 45 pounds of marijuana, according to court records.

Skinner was arrested and told investigators that for approximately 18 months, he had been involved in a drug smuggling ring.

Skinner said the ring relied on a third man, LaDale Callaway, who worked as a baggage handler at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. Callaway would put bags packed with drugs onto planes bound for Detroit.

Skinner or Atwater would unload the bags in Detroit and leave using the employee exit. Sometimes, the men put the luggage on domestic baggage conveyer belts to avoid close inspection.

Skinner told investigators he often delivered the bags to Detroit-based drug distributors. One of those distributors was Callaway, according to court records.

The drugs would be prepared for distribution at Callaway's house on Ilene Street in Detroit, according to court records.

Skinner also delivered drug-filled luggage to another man, Floyd Adams of Brawley, Calif., and his girlfriend, Cher Denton of Detroit. In return, they would give Skinner cash, according to court records.

The money would then be flown back to Houston aboard Delta flights, Skinner said.

The money-changing often relied on surreptitious techniques, according to court records.

In one scenario, Adams and Skinner would meet in a bathroom inside a terminal at Detroit Metro Airport. Adams took the cash and boarded a flight to Houston.

The Houston-Detroit pipeline relied on two baggage handlers who transferred from Detroit to Texas so they could arrange the drug shipments, according to court records. Those handlers were Yohanis Watson and Callaway, prosecutors claim.

For every bag successfully delivered, Callaway would pay Skinner $1,000, according to court records.

Skinner was paid an average of $15,000 a month during an 18-month period, according to records.

(Robert Snell - The Detroit News)

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