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FBI Is Left Holding the Bag After Heroin Bust

Times Staff Writer

After a yearlong undercover drug operation climaxed Thursday night with gunfire and two high-speed car chases, San Diego FBI agents had six suspected heroin dealers and 4 1/2 pounds of heroin--but the alleged drug wholesalers had gotten away with $343,000 in government money.

One of the six escaped the bust after selling Mexican “black tar” heroin to FBI agents for $143,000. He eluded recapture for about five hours--long enough to pass along the cash, said FBI spokesman Gary Laturno. The rest of the unrecovered money--$200,000--had been spent on four earlier deals netting 3 pounds of the drug, Laturno said.

Laturno, an 11-year veteran of the FBI, said he hadn’t heard of another case involving so much unrecovered cash, and other sources in drug law enforcement described the episode as “embarrassing.”

Technique Not Used Often

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“We do not use this (buy-bust) technique very often, but we felt it was necessary and appropriate,” Laturno said.

Arraigned in federal court Friday on charges of conspiracy to possess narcotics for distribution were San Diego residents Antonio Chavez Aguilar, 20; Francisco Ortiz, 46; Narvel Figueroa, 21; Rafael Zermeno, 20, and Felia Tijerina, 34, said acting U. S. Atty. Nancy Worthington. Jose Vargas-Mariscal, 30, of Pico Rivera was charged with possession of heroin with intent to distribute, Worthington said.

A seventh suspect, whom authorities declined to identify, is still at large.

FBI agents posing as drug dealers bought the heroin from four of the suspects at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in a 9th Avenue parking lot between Broadway and C Street, Laturno said.

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When an FBI SWAT team moved in to seal off the lot, two of the men rammed an FBI car with their brown Camaro and tried to run down an agent, who fired at the car with a shotgun, Laturno said. The pair then led agents and San Diego police on a car chase to the Laurel Street bridge in Balboa Park, where agents forced the car to stop, he said.

One of the men appeared to reach for a weapon, and an agent fired at them with six rounds from a machine gun, prompting one of them to surrender, Laturno said. The other, Zermeno, escaped on foot with the cash and was arrested at a Newton Avenue residence early Friday morning, he said.

Money Missing

In the interval, the money had disappeared. Agents believe the suspect sent the money to Los Angeles--where Laturno said the heroin came from. Three Los Angeles members of the heroin ring were found guilty of trafficking in January, he said.

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The other pair from the parking lot got away in a second car but drove to the police station at 15th and Broadway, where they surrendered, Laturno said. Two of the remaining three suspects were arrested in the city on Friday, he said.

No weapons were recovered from the suspects, who could face $2 million in fines and life imprisonment if convicted.

“It’s a significant amount of heroin,” Laturno said. He said agents did not know how much, if any, heroin was imported by the ring and not purchased by the FBI. The crude “black tar” came through Tijuana on foot and in vehicles before going to Los Angeles then back south to San Diego, he said.

The FBI credited the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Immigration and Naturalization Service with help in the case, but DEA spokesman Ron D’Ulisse said his agency’s involvement--beyond advice on prices--was minimal, despite offers of assistance.

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Street Value of Drug

There was some confusion about the street value of the drug. Although the FBI hasn’t tested the 4 1/2-pound batch for purity, Laturno said the previous “uncut” buys ranged in purity from 17% to 45%.

At the purest end of that spectrum, 45% purity, he said the confiscated drug would fetch $500,000 a pound, or more than $2 million total. If the heroin were only 17% pure, it would still bring in $400,000 a pound if sold on the street, he said.

D’Ulisse, of the DEA, said 17% pure heroin is worth only about $113,000 a pound on the street. “Black tar” heroin obtained by the DEA directly from Mexican labs has been 40% to 80% pure, he said.

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Laturno said that, although three of the six captured suspects are 21 or younger, “They were distributing large amounts. They’re not upper-level people, they’re not decision-makers. But they are being trusted with very large amounts.”

The suspects are being held without bail at the Metropolitan Correctional Center downtown.


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