Smugglers used checked luggage to transport nearly $13 million in drugs, authorities say

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd speaks Friday, Aug. 19, 2022, at a press conference regarding Operation Flying Ice.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd speaks Friday about a major drug smuggling ring that used checked baggage at Los Angeles International Airport. (Polk County Sheriff’s Office)

They were loaded onto flights from California to Florida, with suitcases full of drugs including methamphetamine, cocaine and fentanyl.

For two years, authorities from more than a dozen agencies in Florida, California and the federal government tracked the drug ring, using wiretapping and undercover purchases to build a case that led to the largest drug bust and arrests in Polk County, Fla., history, he said. Sheriff Grady Judd on Friday.

The investigation, dubbed Operation Flying Ice, resulted in 85 arrests and 355 felony and 93 misdemeanor charges, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office said. Authorities estimate the total value of the seized drugs to be more than $12.8 million.

Judd spoke about the effort during a press conference Friday, in which he argued against the classification of drug offenses as low-level and non-violent.

The sheriff also called Los Angeles International Airport. In one case, a flight had six suitcases filled with 94 pounds of methamphetamine and 48 pounds of cannabis arrive in Orlando from Los Angeles, he said.

“They didn’t throw a pair of underwear in the suitcase to act like they were hiding the drugs,” Judd said. “Do you think LAX has a drug smuggling problem at the airport? I think they do and they need to address it ASAP.”

Heath Montgomery, a spokesman for LAX, said the Transportation Security Administration is responsible for screening bags and referred questions to the TSA.

“TSA screening procedures are focused on our security mission and are designed to detect potential threats to aviation and passengers,” said a TSA spokesperson. “Therefore, TSA security officers do not search for illegal drugs, but if they are discovered during the security screening process, TSA will refer the matter to our law enforcement partners for action.”

The investigation began in September 2020 after detectives executed a search warrant in Winter Haven, Fla., and seized a kilogram of methamphetamine, the sheriff’s office said.

Detectives continued to make undercover purchases from dealers in the area and learned that large amounts of drugs were being smuggled from California to Florida through checked bags on domestic flights, the Sheriff’s Office said. Investigators began a wiretapping investigation in February 2022.

“We’re dealing with an international smuggling ring that operated out of Winter Haven,” Judd said.

Investigators believe at least some of the drugs, particularly methamphetamine, were being smuggled into Los Angeles and Fresno from Mexico, according to the sheriff. The drugs then went from these California hubs, some flowing to Memphis, Tenn., before reaching Orlando, and other shipments moving directly from California to Florida.

In total, authorities seized 268 pounds of methamphetamine, 31 pounds of cocaine, 180 pounds of cannabis, 3.4 pounds of MDMA, 6.8 ounces of fentanyl, 68 Xanax pills, 173 oxycodone pills, two bezocodone pills, 49 inert balls. stolen motorcycle and $235,000 in cash, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Officials named six men from Florida as the alleged ringleaders of the smuggling ring. Many of the 85 suspects arrested had lengthy criminal histories with 194 prior felony convictions among them, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Investigators are looking for three more suspects: Jesus Barragan-Torres, 37, of Sanger, California; Darrion Jacob, 40, of Winter Haven; and Amanda Paige Wittke, 38, of Polk City, Fla.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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