Looks like the .gov will be getting a lot of cash and property out of this one
Cocaine ring in Houston is linked to land deals here
By Peter Shinkle
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
The Garcia family of Houston has worked hard for decades, building a small empire consisting of a business that imported food from Mexico, two restaurants, a meat market and even a ranch for raising race horses.
It seemed a classic tale of immigrant success, and an example of the booming cross-border trade with Mexico.
Then, in 2004, family member Francisco Serna-Garcia was charged with being part of a conspiracy that imported something from Mexico besides food - cocaine.
It marked the unraveling of what Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Delworth called one of the biggest cocaine trafficking operations ever uncovered here. Prosecutors say that now, 33 guilty pleas later, it is about down to its loose ends.
Officials claimed that Serna-Garcia brought large quantities of drugs through Texas to St. Louis. He was arrested in 2004 at the ranch, where federal agents said they also seized a large quantity of the drug "ecstasy" and some cocaine.
His attorney initially dismissed the evidence as "extremely weak," and the defendant's cousin came from Houston to testify in federal court in St. Louis that he was unaware of any criminal conduct by anyone in the family.
But in September 2005, Serna-Garcia walked into federal court in St. Louis and pleaded guilty of a drug conspiracy, admitting that he was responsible for shipping about 150 kilograms - or 330 pounds - of cocaine from Houston to St. Louis.
His plea implicated an array of other defendants, including Jorge Trevino, a former resident of Arnold who is accused of importing cocaine into St. Louis and then plowing more than $700,000 in drug proceeds into real estate in Jefferson County.
More than a year after the indictment, Trevino and his girlfriend, Christine Becker, remain fugitives and are believed to be together in Mexico.
In all, the U.S. attorney's office in St. Louis filed indictments against 37 people in connection with what prosecutors say were inter-related cocaine operations of Serna-Garcia, Trevino and another man accused of trafficking with them, Deron Gatling.
Only four cases remain unresolved.
When agents raided the ranch outside Houston to arrest Serna-Garcia, they found about 20,000 ecstasy pills and a half-kilogram of cocaine, Drug Enforcement Administration agent Christian Ebner testified in September 2004.
The ring had strong connections in Mexico, officials said. In raiding the ranch, agents seized a pickup belonging to Serna-Garcia's wife, registered to her home in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon. She was not charged with a crime, though prosecutors are trying to force her to forfeit the truck as having been bought with drug proceeds.
In the raid, agents discovered money-counting machines and ledgers they suspect were used for drug deals, Ebner testified. They also found cars with "traps to secrete cocaine for transportation," as well as hollowed-out car batteries, he said.
The discoveries seemed to corroborate an account that investigators had gotten earlier from a Texas drug defendant, who told agents he had transported cocaine to St. Louis in cars with hollowed-out batteries, Ebner said.
That defendant told agents that in a six-month period in 2002, he transported more than 400 kilos of cocaine for Serna-Garcia to St. Louis, Ebner said. The defendant also told investigators he had counted more than $5.5 million that Trevino derived from cocaine sales in St. Louis, Ebner said.
Trevino was indicted along with Serna-Garcia and 14 others in September 2004 on charges of running a cocaine distribution ring.
Last month, Trevino, 25, and his brother, Servando Trevino Jr., 37, were indicted on charges that they conspired to launder cocaine proceeds of more than $730,000 from September 2000 until the time of the indictment.
The indictment claims that although much of the drug ring's proceeds in St. Louis were returned to Texas, the Trevinos invested $730,000 "with a developer in the name of family members to buy land and improve houses in the St. Louis metropolitan area."
At one point, Jorge Trevino had between $500,000 and $600,000 in cash picked up in duffel bags from his mother at her house, and the money was taken to Houston to acquire 25 to 30 kilograms of cocaine, the indictment says.
On another occasion, Servando Trevino counted out $700,000 in cash, and Jorge Trevino then had someone go to Servando's house and pick up two large duffel bags of cash for transportation to Texas, the indictment says.
In 2000, Servando Trevino and his wife used cash to buy a $16,830 cashier's check to acquire a tract of land in Jefferson County. The next year, they paid a developer $133,000 to build a house there, the indictment claims.
Then, in November 2001, Servando Trevino entered an agreement with the developer - unnamed in the indictment - to invest money to build homes. Over the next year, he invested $347,590, the indictment claims.
In July 2003, Servando Trevino gave the developer $250,000 in cash to develop a 106-acre tract in Jefferson County, the indictment claims. The developer allegedly deposited the cash in his bank account the same day. Dellworth, the prosecutor, declined to identify the developer.
Servando Trevino has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Sanford Boxerman, suggested a distinction between Servando and his brother Jorge.
"His brother is a fugitive and is wanted by the government on drug charges, and I think what's going on here is there are some financial transactions that the government can't explain," he said. "And I'm hoping we'll soon be in a position to explain them to the government. My client, Servando, is not involved in illegal activity."
As for the $250,000 cash payment to the developer, Boxerman said: "The government is making assumptions about the source of the money, and I anticipate that those assumptions will turn out to be incorrect."