Locals busted in $1 million marijuana ring
20 people ran pot operation between Canada, Pittsburgh
Saturday, July 26, 2008
By Jonathan D. Silver, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Twin investigations operating for months on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border culminated this week with drug conspiracy charges being filed against 20 people -- including six in Allegheny and Butler counties -- accused of running a million-dollar marijuana ring.
Authorities in the Pittsburgh area, Florida and Ontario, Canada, made the arrests Thursday in a coordinated sweep to shut down the ring, which is accused of transporting pot from Canada to Pittsburgh since at least March 2007.
It is not clear where the pot was sold or how the Florida suspects fit in since information about the case is under seal in federal court.
However, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said the marijuana was sent to the Pittsburgh area and money made from selling the drugs made its way back to Canada.
"It's a substantial ring," Sgt. Marc LaPorte of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said yesterday. "It shows that the demand for it is there and the money that they can make just by simply sending it to the States compared to keeping it here is greater."
Seven Canadian citizens will be extradited to the United States to face charges. They include Kieu Dang Cao, 40, and Karen Yau Tai Chu, 50, both of Ontario, who are referred to in federal court documents as "Big Brother" and "Big Sister," respectively.
One of those Canadians was a truck driver who used his company vehicle to take marijuana across the border to the United States, where it was distributed to couriers who brought it south in passenger cars, said Inspector Randy Franks of the Toronto Police Service's Organized Crime Enforcement.
Another five people in Canada were charged by Toronto authorities, one of whom is on the loose.
"They were one cell of the producers that were supplying the marijuana," Inspector Franks said.
Two men were also arrested in Florida.
Many of those charged are of Vietnamese or Chinese descent, which led to the involvement of the Toronto Police Service Asian Organized Crime Task Force.
The multi-jurisdictional investigation, dubbed Operation Golden Triangle, was launched in Pittsburgh, but neither the FBI nor the U.S. attorney's office here would provide information about when it began or what prompted it. The Canadians' end of the probe was called Project OPenguin.
Investigators used wiretaps, surveillance and controlled buys to build their case, Sgt. LaPorte said.
During the investigation, authorities seized more than $1 million in cash and about 524 pounds of marijuana, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Late yesterday afternoon, Toronto Police announced an additional seizure of 76 pounds of marijuana, 215 pot plants, $170,000 in cash, about $200,000 worth of inventory from a hydroponic supply store and small amounts of other drugs.
Those arrested here are: Cuong D. Nguyen, 32, of Elliott; Dung Minh Tran, 33, of McCandless; Christopher George Leventis, 34, of Greenfield; Giacinto Rocco Derenzo, 29, of Cranberry; Magdi Milad Louis, 35, of Ross; and Hau Duy Bach, 19, of McCandless.
Mr. Derenzo operates a fish store, Under the Sea, in Cranberry.
All six made their initial appearance Thursday before a federal magistrate. They were released on $50,000 unsecured bond.
Four are due back in federal court Thursday for a hearing; Mr. Tran and Mr. Leventis waived their rights to the proceeding.
Attorneys for four of the defendants declined to comment.
Mr. Louis declined to comment through his wife. His mother, Mary Louis, 60, of Ross, said her son worked in construction and computers. She said she was surprised authorities claimed he was part of a drug ring because he did not have a lot of money. She said investigators spoke to her at her home Thursday.
"They asked me if he put anything in [my] house," Mrs. Louis said. She said she gave them permission to search but they did not take her up on the offer.
First published on July 26, 2008 at 12:00 am
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