U.S. attorney’s office indicts 11 St. George defendants in massive drug trafficking sting

ST. GEORGE — A large-scale multi-agency undercover operation targeting drug traffickers that took place over two days this week led to the arrest of 17 individuals and the seizure of more than three kilograms of methamphetamine and thousands of fentanyl pills.

Stock image of fentanyl | Photo courtesy of the Drug Enforcement Agency, St. George News

On Tuesday, St. George News began receiving emails and messages regarding an uptick in law enforcement activity that included sightings of SWAT officers, flashbangs detonating, swarms of officers and agents approaching various homes and apartment units throughout Washington County, as well as helicopters and drones hovering overhead.

The U.S. attorney’s office in St. George orchestrated a wide scale sting operation involving the joint Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force comprised of federal agents and several local law enforcement agencies that focused on a number of individuals suspected of trafficking methamphetamine and fentanyl, according to the 18-page indictment that was unsealed on Thursday.

There were 24 charges in the indictment recently unsealed – the result of an investigation that demonstrated extensive law-enforcement cooperation in the St. George area, where federal and state police partners conducted a proactive investigation targeting drug trafficking and money laundering, the statement said. 

During the two-day sting operation, officers seized more than three kilograms of methamphetamine and thousands of fentanyl pills, and investigators also learned that 41-year-old Angel Rubio-Quintana, of St. George, along with co-conspirators, allegedly ordered narcotics from individuals in Mexico, distributed the drugs throughout the local community, and then sent the proceeds from those sales back to Mexico. 

The indictment was announced by United States Attorney Andrea T. Martinez in Salt Lake City, who said in the statement that her office is committed to “federally prosecuting drug traffickers who fuel addiction and crime in Southern Utah.” 

Moreover, the operation “highlights law enforcement’s tireless efforts to dismantle drug-trafficking organizations from suppliers in Mexico to drug dealers in St. George,” she added. 

Washington County Drug Task Force Captain Jordan Minnick was also present during Martinez’s announcement.

In total, 17 individuals were indicted, eleven of which were residents of St. George, including Jaime Rivera-Jauregui, 35; 19-year-old Carlos Rubio-Acosta and Tanya Adame Santilla, also 19; Juan Carlos Orozco, 40; Lauro Ignacio-Morales, 20; Llonatan Gutierrez-Ruiz, 59; Paul Ciriaco, 33; 20-year-old Hardet Alan Valdez and 21-year-old Oliver Mendez-Rojas. 

Agents also arrested 59-year-old Tracy Eyman, of Diamond Valley.

Stock image | Photo courtesy of the FBI, St. George News

The indictment contained 24 federal charges that were filed, resulting in a total of 150 federal counts listed between the 17 defendants. The charges outlined in the indictment are as follows: conspiracy to distribute fentanyl, methamphetamine and marijuana, as well as various distribution charges for fentanyl, methamphetamine, and marijuana, in addition to  possession of p-fluorofentanyl, an analogue of fentanyl, with intent to distribute, conspiracy to launder money and unlawful re-entry of a previously removed alien.

The arrests were made following the execution of several search warrants that were served during the early morning hours of Tuesday and Wednesday.

One such warrant was served upon the tenants of an apartment unit located behind Harmons Grocery store on 700 South, where resident Eden Constantine, a nursing student who lives in the complex where one of the warrants was served, said he was awakened shortly after 5 a.m. on Wednesday to the sound of officers outside of one of the nearby units yelling for the occupants to open the door.

2021 file photo of St. George SWAT team responding to700 South St. George, Utah, April 23, 2021 | Photo courtesy of Marshall Connelly, St. George News

Constantine said when he looked out his window, he noticed at least seven unmarked SUVs and pickup trucks scattered across the parking lot, with nearly a dozen or so undercover officers near the unit where the warrant was being served. He also said it appeared that some of the officers appeared to be in SWAT gear, and after three orders to open the door, the officers forced entry into the apartment.

He also said he could hear a commotion to the rear of the complex, where several officers appeared to be stationed to prevent anyone from running out of the back of the apartment, and he also noticed several unmarked police units stopped in the street.

He went on to say after the occupants were brought outside, some in their pajamas, he said, a team of detectives or agents entered the unit and remained there for an extended period of time.

The large-scale operation was coordinated by the U.S. attorney’s office in St. George, and the case is being handled by two assistant U.S. attorneys, Stephen Dent and Angela Reddish-Day, while U.S. District Judge David Nuffer will hear the case.

Stock image of DEA agent | Photo courtesy of the Drug Enfordcment Agency, St. George News

The six remaining defendants that have been indicted include Raul Valdez-Chavez, 62, of Riverside County, California, Juana Marin-Angel, 34, of West Jordan, Daniel Tena-Villasenor, 28, of Jerome, along with two Mexican Nationals – 49-year-old Ramon Higuera-Cota and  Presciliano Galax-Felix, 54, both from Sinaloa, Mexico. 

The U.S. attorney’s office is committed to continuing in their efforts to “vigorously prosecute those who traffic narcotics in our communities,” Martinez said.

The sting operation was comprised of agents with the joint Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, along with the Washington County Drug Task Force, the DEA, the FBI, Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, IRS Criminal Investigation Division and the United States Marshals Service. 

This report is based on statements from court records, federal prosecutors, courts and agencies and may not contain the full scope of findings. Persons arrested or charged are presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law or as otherwise decided by a trier-of-fact. 

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

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