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Essential California: How one man’s arrest led to a global crime bust

a box containing a large amounts of cash
A box containing a large amounts of cash is seen after being discovered during a police raid as part of Operation Trojan Shield.
(Associated Press)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, June 9. I’m Justin Ray.

It all started with a California man’s arrest six years ago.

Owen Hanson grew up in Redondo Beach. He was a walk-on tight end on the 2004 University of Southern California football team, according to San Diego Union Tribune reporter Kristina Davis. After college, he saw success in real estate development, but the business tanked when the economy crashed in 2007.

Then, Hanson ran a sportsbook that he took over from his father’s fishing buddy. But it wasn’t the only business Hanson would run. “It really started out as a sports betting racket and then [Hanson] got more seriously into drug trafficking,” Davis tells The Times. “He was a very unlikely drug kingpin.”

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He eventually used his college football connections to access professional athletes to whom he would sell performance-enhancing drugs. “He was very taken by that gangster persona,” Davis says. “He surrounded himself with all these other colorful characters.” She notes that a Los Angeles-based private investigator sentenced to 16 months in federal prison for his role in Hanson’s operation is the same who made headlines for trying to dig up private information on Meghan Markle.

“It’s just stuff out of a movie, man,” Davis says. “It doesn’t seem real.”

Hanson was arrested by authorities in September 2015 when he arrived one morning at Carlsbad’s Park Hyatt Aviara Golf Club. He pleaded guilty to a racketeering conspiracy and conspiracy to distribute drugs and was eventually sentenced to 21 years and three months in prison.

But the story doesn’t end there. While Hanson was being investigated, an undercover agent managed to gain his trust and obtain an encrypted cellphone. That moment ended up being quite consequential.

The phone Hanson gave the agent was a product of a Canadian company named Phantom Secure. When Hanson was arrested, the San Diego FBI — along with authorities from Canada, Australia and other countries — began to focus on Phantom Secure’s CEO Vincent Ramos. However, Ramos did not want to play ball; he refused to help authorities create a back door into his technology in 2018.

It was at this point that law enforcement thought: What if we made our own technology?

“U.S. law enforcement and Australian Federal Police hammered out logistical, technical and bureaucratic challenges over meals and beer,” a source close to the investigation told Davis. They eventually created a fake company, called ANØM, that developed a phone used by criminals all across the world.

Authorities have released information about the unprecedented investigation over the past two days. They said the sting, called Operation Trojan Shield, yielded huge results: Over 800 suspects were arrested and 32 tons of drugs were seized. Additionally, 21 threats to kill were intercepted. No suspects who were arrested were in the United States, but 17 foreign nationals were indicted on U.S. racketeering charges.

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More than 27 million messages from about 12,000 devices in 45 languages were obtained by authorities. They said the messages described activities such as cocaine being hidden in tuna cans and sent to Belgium, more cocaine placed in refrigerated fish sent to Spain, and, you guessed it, yet even more cocaine in French diplomatic pouches.

One purpose of the operation was to make criminals balk at working within networks. “Criminal groups using encrypted communications to thwart law enforcement should no longer feel safe in that space,” Jamie Arnold, FBI San Diego assistant special agent in charge, said in a news release. “We hope criminals worldwide will fear that the FBI or another law enforcement organization may, in fact, be running their platform.”

This was a quick summary, but there’s a lot more to know about the story. You can read more of Kristina Davis’ coverage here.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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Suspect charged with murder in road rage shooting death of 6-year-old. Marcus Anthony Eriz, 24, has been charged with murder and discharging a gun into an occupied vehicle over the death of 6-year-old Aiden Leos. Wynne Lee, 23, who authorities say was driving the car from which Eriz fired the fatal shot, has been charged with one felony count of accessory after the fact and a misdemeanor count of having a concealed firearm in a vehicle. Los Angeles Times

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

L.A. STORIES

Police will consider new rules for off-duty cops and alcohol. The Los Angeles Police Commission on Tuesday said it was considering changing LAPD policy to restrict the use of alcohol by armed off-duty officers. We recently reported how the department had failed for years to develop clear policies on the issue despite a series of problems involving drunk and armed officers. Los Angeles Times

The next L.A. Times Book Club event has been announced. The club will host author Michele Harper on June 29 for a conversation with Times reporter Marissa Evans. Harper will discuss her bestselling memoir “The Beauty in Breaking,” and her decade-long career. Los Angeles Times

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Guatemala and Mexico was a mix of diplomacy and controversy. Harris rubbed some the wrong way with her statement Monday in Guatemala telling desperate migrants, “Do not come” to the U.S. border, warning that they’d be “turned back.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) had a strong response to the comments. Los Angeles Times

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris
Vice President Kamala Harris and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador meet Tuesday at the National Palace in Mexico City.
(Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

A UCLA report challenges beliefs about COVID restrictions and the economy. A recent report by economists at the University of California Los Angeles is challenging some beliefs about how pandemic restrictions affected the economy. The latest quarterly UCLA Anderson Forecast showed that big states that had more aggressive coronavirus measures had fewer infections per capita. Additionally, they were more likely to have better economic growth. Yahoo News

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Oakland’s guaranteed income program begins accepting applications. On Tuesday, Oakland began accepting applications for the city’s guaranteed income program, named Oakland Resilient Families. One of the largest being offered in the country, the initiative will issue $500-a-month cash payments for 18 months. San Francisco Chronicle

Asian Americans protest homeless housing near upscale Arcadia, sparking a suburban battle. The issue of housing for the unhoused caused a conflict in Arcadia, specifically outside the home of City Councilwoman April Verlato, who supported a plan to build shed-like structures for homeless people. The protesters displayed banners in English and Chinese that read: “We need a safe place to live. No Tiny Shelters!” Los Angeles Times

CRIME AND COURTS

Remains of a man found in Palm Springs. The skeletal remains of a man who has been missing since September 2018 have been found in Palm Springs. The remains of Michael John Enguidanos, 54, of Covina, were found back in March. They were discovered by the Coachella Valley Water District while crews were performing routine maintenance. KESQ

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

University to make overdose reversal medication more available. Members of the California Polytechnic State University community want to increase access to Narcan to prevent opioid overdoses. Data has revealed a surge in overdose deaths in San Luis Obispo County. Consequently, there is a push to have the potentially life-saving drug available to all on-campus resident advisors and the houses of every sorority and fraternity. The Tribune

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A generation of seabirds was wiped out by a drone in O.C. Some 3,000 seabirds fled the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve after a drone crashed at the Huntington Beach reserve, leaving behind 1,500 to 2,000 eggs. None of them were viable. Nobody is sure what happened to the birds, which are highly sensitive to perceived threats. Los Angeles Times

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

An NHL team is getting into the crypto game. Sharks Sports & Entertainment will become the first parent company of an NHL team to accept cryptocurrency. Starting June 15, the San Jose Sharks will accept cryptocurrency for purchases of season tickets, sponsorship deals and luxury box leases. Silicon Valley

Megachurch pastor set to retire. Rick Warren has announced he will retire after serving 42 years as lead pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County. A video that was recently streamed to congregants explained that he will now take the title of “founding pastor.” He has said his health motivated his decision to step back. Los Angeles Times

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: Cloudy, 75. San Diego: Cloudy, 71. San Francisco: Cloudy, 62. San Jose: Clear skies, 67. Fresno: Sunny, 78. Sacramento: Clear skies, 74.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Dan Rothermel:

As a Jersey boy and 1970 graduate in education at Arizona State University, I interviewed for teaching jobs in California. At my interview for the Anaheim City Schools, innocently I asked the administrator if there was smog in Anaheim. Looking me straight in the eye, he said, “No.” Wanting to move to Southern California, I took the job. Once there, I had nothing but low-lying smog day after day for the first six weeks until the first Santa Ana winds blew through. When I saw the same administrator later, he smiled and said, “I never thought you’d really believe me. “

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


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