47 charged in undercover meth trafficking investigation in Florida

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POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – A massive undercover meth trafficking operation in Polk County, Florida ended with 47 suspects charged, Sheriff Grady Judd announced Wednesday.

The takedown, dubbed “Operation Meth Death Peddlers,” was a joint undercover operation between the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, local law enforcement, and the U.S. Border Patrol. The undercover trafficking investigation resulted in 44 arrests and three warrants. Detectives also seized 50 pounds of meth, money and guns.

During the investigation, detectives say they learned meth was being brought in from Mexico to California. The drugs were then delivered to Polk County, as well as areas in Texas, Georgia and South Carolina. 

According to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, nine of the 47 suspects are in the country illegally. They remain in the Polk County Jail on ICE holds. Detectives explained one suspect was deported back to Mexico but has a Polk County warrant for his arrest.

“These [people] are coming here to destroy lives of people in the United States with their methamphetamine and some got here as little as two weeks ago,” the sheriff said.

A news release from the sheriff’s office says the medical examiner for Florida’s 10th District reported 68 meth-related deaths in 2017. Statewide, medical examiners reported 464 people died throughout Florida as a direct result of methamphetamines in 2017. That’s a 42 percent increase from 2016.

“Make no mistake, everything about meth is violent and destructive. It destroys lives, ruins families and kills people. Meth equals death. If meth doesn’t kill you outright, it relentlessly kills you over time,” Judd said.

During a news conference Wednesday, the sheriff took aim at the politicians who he says downplay how serious drug crimes are.

“These drug traffickers and drug dealers are what some in the Florida legislature refer to as ‘low-level, non-violent drug offenders.’ Some politicians want to release drug traffickers early from prison, lower their sentences or avoid putting them in prison altogether,” Judd said. “The next time a politician tells you that that trafficking in meth, heroin, fentanyl, crack cocaine and other illegal street drugs is non-violent low-level crime, tell them they are not operating in the realm of reality.”

The suspects arrested in this operation have collectively been charged with 85 felonies and 50 misdemeanors. Detectives say they’ve previously been arrested and charged with a total of 392 felonies and 325 misdemeanors. Together, they have 94 felony convictions and 142 misdemeanors.

“These drug dealers have blood on their hands. They make money off of the misery of others. They use violence as a means to enforce their business rules. Everything about what they do is violent to our communities and our quality of life,” Judd said. 

FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen says the trafficking ring was “difficult to infiltrate,” but credits the persistence of detectives and agents with the operation’s success.

“Thanks to the tremendous work of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, our various partners and our agents, we’ve sent a message to traffickers that drugs won’t be tolerated in our back yard,” he said.

“Operation Meth Death Peddlers” began when detectives say they were tipped off about 45-year-old Acencion Zarate-Najera running an illegal drug trafficking organization that was distributing large amounts of meth throughout the southern United States.

Zarate-Najera was arrested April 10 and charged with conspiracy to traffic in meth and conspiracy to traffic in heroin among other charges. He’s being held on $505,250 bond and is on an ICE hold. 

The following suspects were later arrested by detectives:

George Lopez, 22: Charged with armed trafficking in meth, use of a structure to traffic in controlled substances, possession of marijuana over 20 grams and possession of paraphernalia. He’s being held on $256,500 bond. 

Otoniel Valdez-Mendoza, 33: Charged with conspiracy to traffic in methamphetamine and no valid DL. He’s being held on no bond and he’s on an ICE hold. Detectives say Otoniel was supplying meth to brothers Roy and Eddie Rodriguez in Plant City. 

Margarito Valdez-Cuevas, 32: Charged with trafficking in meth, conspiracy to traffic in meth, use of a vehicle to traffic controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia. He’s being held on $400,500 bond. Deputies say he’s on an ICE hold and has been previously deported.

Jorge Zamora-Mendoza, 28: Charged with conspiracy to traffic in meth. He’s being held on $250,000 bond and he’s on an ICE hold.

Jose Chavez-Cuevas, 30: Charged with conspiracy to traffic in meth and no valid DL. He’s being held on $250,250 bond and he’s on an ICE hold. 

Pablo Valdez-Mendoza, 26: Charged with conspiracy to traffic in meth. He’s being held on $250,000 bond, and he’s on an ICE hold.

Angela Slocumb, 57: Charged with trafficking in meth, maintaining a structure to traffic drugs and possession of paraphernalia. Detectives say they located a safe in her Lakes Wales home that contained meth and $6,440. 

Oscar Vaca-Gamez, 31: Charged with conspiracy to traffic meth and illegal use of two-way communication device.

Betsy Magana, 30: Charged with possession of meth, possession of marijuana and possession of paraphernalia. Detectives say she attempted to smuggle cocaine into jail when arrested during this operation. 

David Wayne Evans, 42: Charged with possession of meth, possession of marijuana and possession of paraphernalia. 

Mary Evans, 40: Charged with possession of meth and possession of paraphernalia.

Juan Carlos Puga, 48: Charged with possession of meth and possession of paraphernalia.

Roger Fluty, 53: Charged with possession of meth and illegal use of two-way communication device.

James Parnell, 37: Charged with conspiracy to traffic meth and illegal use of two-way communication device.

Melissa Ceja, 46: Charged with conspiracy to traffic meth and illegal use of two-way communication device.

Lindsey Dawn Suters, 31: Charged with conspiracy to traffic meth and illegal use of two-way communication device.

Fernando Lopez, Jr., 29: Charged with possession of meth and illegal use of two-way communication device.

James Willard Robinson, 76: Charged with conspiracy to traffic meth and illegal use of two-way communication device. He has 32 prior felonies and 8 prior misdemeanors including incest, robbery, and escape.

Charles Wayne Walker, 34: Charged with possession of meth and possession of paraphernalia.

Heric Raya, 29: Charged with conspiracy to traffic in meth, use of a structure to traffic drugs, possession of marijuana and possession of paraphernalia.

Jose Emanuel Rebollar, 30: Charged with armed trafficking in meth, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, possession of cocaine WITS, resisting arrest, possession of marijuana and possession of paraphernalia. Deputies say Rebollar is currently serving a 25-year sentence in state prison for these charges. 

Edilberto Mojica, 33: Charged with armed trafficking in meth, possession of meth WITS, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, grand theft of a firearm, possession of paraphernalia and no valid DL.

Ty William Shulze, 48: Charged with trafficking in meth, possession of marijuana, possession of MDMA and VOP – possession of meth.

Jesus Torres-Almanza, 52: Charged with trafficking in meth, possession of a vehicle for drug trafficking, possession of paraphernalia and no valid DL.

Martin Delgado, Jr., 30: Charged with trafficking in meth, possession of a vehicle for drug trafficking and possession of paraphernalia.

Cesar Alonso Rincon-Ayala, 28: Charged with trafficking in meth, possession of paraphernalia and no valid DL.

Richard Emmett Walker, 63: Charged with trafficking in meth, possession of a vehicle for drug trafficking, possession of alprazolam and possession of paraphernalia. He has 18 prior felonies and 5 prior misdemeanors, including homicide.

Tracy Walls, 50: Charged with trafficking in meth, possession of a structure for drug trafficking and possession of paraphernalia.

Leeah Bowman Jones, 34: Charged with trafficking in meth, possession of a vehicle for drug trafficking, possession of marijuana and possession of paraphernalia.

David Eugene Hayward, 54: Charged with trafficking in meth, possession of a structure for drug trafficking and possession of paraphernalia.

Cinnamon Thomas, 49: Charged with trafficking in meth, possession of a vehicle for drug trafficking and possession of paraphernalia.

Rosa Maria Francisca-Puente, 25: Charged with conspiracy to traffic meth, possession of marijuana and possession of paraphernalia.

Cira Zarate-Bermudez, 25: Charged with conspiracy to traffic meth, illegal use of two-way communication device and resisting arrest.

Eddie Rodriguez, 25: Charged with conspiracy to traffic meth and illegal use of two-way communication device.

Keven Rivera-Rivera, 23: Charged with conspiracy to traffic meth and illegal use of two-way communication device.

Roy Rodridguez, 23: Charged with conspiracy to traffic meth and illegal use of two-way communication device.

Mara Valenzuela, 43: Charged with conspiracy to traffic meth, trafficking in meth and possession of paraphernalia.

Hector Miguel Ramirez, 28: Charged with conspiracy to traffic meth, trafficking in meth, maintain a structure for trafficking drugs, possession of marijuana and possession of paraphernalia.

Orval James Miller, 50: Charged with trafficking in meth, maintain a structure for trafficking drugs, possession of marijuana and possession of paraphernalia.

Rickey Edwards Johnson, 54: Charged with trafficking in meth, possession of alprazolam and possession of paraphernalia.

Tereso Orduno-Celis, 44: Charged with possession of meth, possession of paraphernalia and resisting arrest. He is also on an ICE hold.

Roman Alberto Rodallegas, 24: Charged with possession of meth, possession of marijuana and possession of paraphernalia.

Jesus Lopez-Bernal, 19: Charged with possession of marijuana and possession of paraphernalia.

These three suspects are still wanted and have Polk County warrants for their arrests:

Marco Antonio Orozco-Ascencio, 36: Detectives say he is believed to be in Mexico. He is wanted for charges of conspiracy to traffic meth and illegal use of two-way communication device.

Luis Rivera-Latorre, 29: Wanted for charges of conspiracy to traffic meth and illegal use of two-way communication device.

Kevin Mannion, 30: Wanted for charges of conspiracy to traffic meth and illegal use of two-way communication device.

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