PLATTSBURGH — Federal authorities have charged more than 45 people nationwide over their alleged roles in an international drug-smuggling operation that moved $1 billion worth of marijuana.
The two-year investigation exposed a pipeline moving thousands of pounds of marijuana each month from the north country to numerous U.S. cities, including Boston, New York and Miami, prosecutors said. The crime syndicate is alleged to have moved the marijuana, which came from Canada through the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in Franklin County and near Churubusco in Clinton County, over the past four years.
Several federal, state and local law enforcement agencies participated in Operation Iron Curtain, which seized $6 million in cash, more than 5,000 pounds of marijuana and 55 pounds of cocaine. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration led the investigation.
"They are partners in dismantling a 300-pound-per-day marijuana operation which likely moved in excess of 250 million dollars a year of marijuana for the past four years," Franklin County District Attorney Derek P. Champagne said.
The ringleader of the operation allegedly was Steven "Goofy" Sarti, 23, of Brossard, Quebec. He was accused of running a "continuing criminal enterprise" under a racketeering statue that's generally used to prosecute organized crime rings.
Zachary Gouchie, 24, of Montreal, Edward Kener, 31, of Weston, Fla., and John Belanger, 27, of Hartford, Conn., were accused of recruiting people and directing the movement of the marijuana along the East Coast. All three face various drug charges. None of the people charged in the case resides in Franklin or St. Lawrence counties. The U.S. District Court in Albany is overseeing the case.
The crime syndicate reportedly would put the marijuana into hockey bags, which were labeled with initials of the destination or a customer once it came across the border, federal court documents show. The marijuana that moved through the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation came over from Canada by boat or snowmobile, depending on the time of year.
The group relied on numerous mules and blockers to move the marijuana from the north country to the various cities, prosecutors said. The blockers were drivers who went ahead of the mules to scout for law enforcement and sometimes intentionally got stopped by police on various traffic infractions to protect the couriers.
The mules earned from $50 to $75 per pound of marijuana being moved, while blockers collected $10 to $15 per pound.
A federal indictment unsealed Tuesday noted several times when marijuana was moved from Hogansburg, including a 300-pound shipment on Jan. 21, 2008. A drug ledger that was confiscated noted the group had moved about 4,400 pounds of marijuana and smuggled $10.3 million in cash over a 16-day period in February 2008.
The Major Traffickers Strike Force in Franklin County and Adirondack Drug Task Force in Clinton County assisted in the investigation.
"Operation Iron Curtain slammed shut this illegal narcotic smuggling and distribution organization — who was using our northern border as a point of entry until law enforcement caught up to them," John P. Gilbride, the special agent in charge of the DEA in New York, said in a press release.
The indictment also seeks the forfeiture of $25 million in illegal drug proceeds.