Federal agents in Los Angeles arrested 11 people early Wednesday in connection with an international money-laundering and drug-trafficking ring that allegedly funneled large shipments of opium from Iran through Germany and into the United States.
The arrests capped an 18-month investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI that began when German authorities intercepted nearly $5 million worth of opium in Dusseldorf, Germany.
Those arrested were Iranian nationals, including the owner of a downtown Los Angeles jewelry design store.
German state police in December 2003 seized 271 kilos of opium and $69,000 from the apartment and oriental carpet store of Gholam Hassan Nasseri-Jafar, the alleged German head of the opium distribution ring, according to a 49-page sworn affidavit by DEA Agent Jonathan Pullen.
In the affidavit, Pullen alleged that Nasseri-Jafar had a network of Los Angeles-area contacts who would buy and distribute opium that was smuggled into the United States by couriers who were carrying false-bottom suitcases. Nasseri-Jafar also acted as a courier, and U.S. immigration records showed that he had made 13 trips between Los Angeles and Germany or France in the two years before his arrest, Pullen said.
Once the opium arrived in Los Angeles, Nasseri-Jafar would make large deposits in U.S. banks and then wire the money to his accounts in Germany and Switzerland, Pullen said. Some of the money was then transferred from German accounts to people in Iran, he said. The Iranian contacts were not identified.
Citing bank records, telephone calls and informant reports, Pullen alleged that several Los Angeles suspects used local businesses to sell the opium and launder the proceeds.
They included Mehrdad Nejad Lari, the owner of a downtown jewelry design company, and Lari’s employee, Ali Mojaddam.
According to the affidavit, telephone records showed that Nasseri-Jafar was in contact with Lari, 47, of Santa Monica and Mojaddam, 32, of Los Angeles. And bank records established that Nasseri-Jafar used Mojaddam’s home address on a California account, the affidavit said.
Though most of the affidavit deals with how the alleged ring operated before Nasseri-Jafar’s arrest, the document also said -- without explanation -- that court-authorized wiretaps of Lari’s phones suggested that he had continued to distribute opium after the German seizure. The wiretaps, Pullen alleged, also indicated that Lari had laundered the drug money through numerous property purchases.
During the first of 10 narcotics transactions by the ring, a confidential informant traveled with Nasseri-Jafar and other couriers in April 2002, as they transferred 11 suitcases of opium from Germany to the United States, the affidavit said. The informant said four suitcases were handed to Mojaddam and another person during a meeting at a Santa Monica motel, Pullen said.
Later, the affidavit said, the informant saw Nasseri-Jafar with a suitcase containing $100,000.
A courier cautioned the informant to be on good behavior at dinner because Lari, who he described as “the boss of bosses,” would be present.
Lari has an outstanding arrest warrant in Arizona for alleged possession of opium, and Mojaddam has multiple arrests for alleged fraud, the affidavit said. Both were held by federal authorities after initial court appearances late Wednesday, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
Lari’s wife, Marjan Sarshar, 47, who was accused of loan fraud, was released on bail.
Also arrested for alleged possession with intent to distribute opium were Kamran Atarzadeh, 53, and Faramarz Bokhour, 55, both of Los Angeles. They were released on bail.
Six others were arrested for alleged money laundering: Bijan Kohanzad, 43, of Brentwood; Houshyar Babelpour, 44, of Woodland Hills; Behnam Azimi, 45, of Pasadena; Mehdi Ilkani, 58, of Santa Monica; Fariborz Ahl, 44, of Los Angeles, and Moussa Abadiah, 55, of Beverly Hills. It was not immediately known if they remained in federal custody.
In addition to the arrests, authorities including IRS agents and Glendale police served search warrants at 13 locations throughout the county.