Without the help of an automatic tag reader, Harris County Sheriff's deputies might have missed a suspected Mexican cartel mule carrying more than a pound of methamphetamine to Panama City, Fla.
That arrest led agents to six more drug ring members and almost 18 additional pounds of meth, Sheriff Mike Jolley said during a Thursday press conference.
The bust began June 21, when a deputy's automatic tag reader alerted him to a stolen license plate on a vehicle heading south on I-185 near Exit 19. The deputy pursued the vehicle and apprehended 29-year-old Angela C. Nash, who was found in possession of one pound of crystal meth, a pistol and $5,200 in cash. The meth was valued at $50,000.
Investigators later learned that this was Nash's eighth trafficking trip to Panama City Beach since the beginning of June. Normally, each trip scored Nash $1,500. However, since she was training an additional worker, this trip would have earned her $3,500.
"A lot of our teenagers, a lot of our kids go to Panama City Beach every summer," Jolley said. "The potential of some of our kids here in this county to come in contact with this dope stirred my heart. We can't just get this drug and let it go. We've got to follow it back to the source, even if the source isn't in Harris County."
Once deputies apprehended Nash, they instructed her to call her lookout — 31-year-old Andrea McInally of Southport, Fla. — who was riding ahead in search of law enforcement. Nash told McInally she was having car issues and needed McInally to pick her and the drugs up. When McInally returned to the gas station where deputies laid in wait, she was arrested and charged with criminal conspiracy to commit a felony.
Nash was charged with trafficking meth, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Both women were taken to Harris County Jail, where they were interviewed by Harris County deputies, the Columbus Drug Enforcement Agency and the Metro Narcotics Task Force. They were released days later on a $100,000 bond.
Those interviews led deputies to three additional drug ring members in Greenville, Ga., on June 26. Posing as meth customers, Drug Enforcement Agency agents and Harris County deputies purchased 4.4 pounds of crystal meth at Christopher, Tiffany and Harlan Jackson's Kodiak Lane home for a partial payment of $5,000. The street value of that package was valued at $200,000.
Days later, agents swarmed the 100 block residence around 5 a.m. to apprehend the distributors. Investigators found two pounds of meth, valued at $100,000 and $8,020 in cash. The property, which operated as a private used car lot as well as a residence, was also seized, along with 17 vehicles.
Before investigators were able to enter the home, one of the residents managed to flush a pound of meth. Pieces of the hastily disposed drug were found scattered on the floor and toilet seat, Jolley said.
Deputies from the Meriwether and Troup County sheriff's offices assisted Harris County and DEA investigators during the raid.
Christopher, 38, and Tiffany, 36, are married, Jolley said. Harlan, 39, is Christopher's brother. All three suspects were taken to the Meriwether County Jail.
Again, deputies devised a plan to entrap additional members of the drug ring. Investigators told the Jacksons to call 33-year-old Elmer V. Ochoa, of Lawrenceville, and 29-year-old Jose M. Lopez, of Crescent City, Fla., who were asked to come to the Kodiak Lane home with 11 pounds of meth. That shipment was valued at $500,000.
Ochoa and Lopez were charged with meth trafficking. They were taken to the Meriwether County Jail.
"We believe the operation is part of the Mexican mafia," Jolley said. "The two individuals who came out of Atlanta come from Mexico, even though one had an address from Lawrenceville and another in Florida."
In total, 18.7 pounds of crystal meth were seized, with a street value of $850,000. Four of the seven members arrested were charged with possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.
Additionally, 19 vehicles and $13,240 in cash were seized, along with two pistols.
Jolley said DEA agents are interviewing the Jacksons to see whether additional distributors were involved in the scheme.
"There may have been other mules that picked up and dropped off in other locations," Jolley said. "But I think we took a major trafficker out of the loop. I think (Meriwether County Sheriff Chuck Smith) is very pleased with the outcome of this."
The profits from the seized cars, property and cash will be distributed among the involved agencies once the assets have been sold, Jolley said. Those profits can then be used by law enforcement for new vehicles, mobile license plate readers and other equipment that will assist agents in taking down additional traffickers.
"We took motorcycles, four-wheelers, big screen TVs. We came back yesterday for the washer and dryers," Jolley said. "They're in it for the money, and we're taking the money. The only way to hurt them is through the economic death penalty, because they're not going to jail forever."
Jolley said he hoped the bust would send a message to others interested in entering the drug dealing business that their actions would not go unnoticed.
"It might be great for a month or two, or a year or two," Jolley said. "But whatever you make, you're going to lose plus go to jail. So get your job so you don't have your door kicked in at 5 a.m."