Investigation Dismantles Butte Drug Trafficking Organization with Ties to the Sinaloa Cartel
December 21, 2022
Many in Whitehall were aware of police activity several weeks ago at the Whitehall Post Office. However, until now, details of the event could not be released. At a press confference on Thursday, December 15, agents of the Montana High Patrol, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and several other government entities held a press conference at the Montana Department of Justice in Butte.
A multi-agency undercover investigation into a large-scale drug trafficking organization that had ties to the Sinaloa Cartel and brought massive quantities of methamphetamine, counterfeit oxycodone pills containing fentanyl and heroin to Butte for redistribution has resulted in the federal convictions of 22 persons, U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich announced.
U.S. Attorney Laslovich, along with federal, state and local law enforcement partners, discussed the dismantling of the Butte drug trafficking network at a news conference at the Montana Highway Patrol office in Butte. Led by the Drug Enforcement Administration and Montana Department of Justice's Division of Criminal Investigation, with assistance from numerous federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, the investigation was one of the largest federal drug trafficking probes in Montana in recent years.
According to court documents and statements in court, the investigation, which began in 2019 with a tip about a suspicious package containing money being sent to California, led to federal convictions in Montana of 22 individuals from Montana, California and Mexico. Three of the drug traffickers, Humberto Villareal and Ricardo Ramos Medina, both of Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico, and Heriberto Tavares, of Anaheim, California, had ties to the Cartel.
Today in Missoula, U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen sentenced Helena resident Michael Robert Lee, 25, to 46 months in prison for his conviction on possession with intent to distribute meth in relation to the investigation. Lee is one of two remaining defendants indicted in the overall investigation to be sentenced. Defendant Tavares, an associate of Villareal and Medina, is pending sentencing in February for his guilty plea in October to possession with intent to distribute meth.
"Far too often, we believe that cartel-related activity in America is limited to southern border states, but as these cases show, we have significant issues facing us in Montana, including in an area where I grew up," U.S. Attorney Laslovich said. "These cases also show that our office will pursue cartel-related activity without fear or hesitation. Individuals associated with this network brought staggering amounts of methamphetamine, fake oxycontin pills laced with fentanyl, and heroin from Mexico and into Montana for distribution. This years-long investigation and prosecution shut down the flow of these dangerous drugs, held suppliers and local dealers accountable, and saved lives in Montana communities. The success of this collaborative enforcement action would not have been possible without the dedication, cooperation, and hard work of all of our law enforcement partners to hold offenders accountable and to keep Montanans safe. Our work does not end with the conclusion of these cases, but rather is just beginning."
"The Sinaloa Cartel is one of two primary cartels responsible for flooding the United States with fentanyl and methamphetamine," said Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Rocky Mountain Division Brian Besser. "This investigation has revealed the extent to which the Sinaloa Cartel has extended its reach into Montana; however, the law enforcement agencies, at the local, state and federal level, have demonstrated via the results of this case that we will continue to attack these networks at every level to save lives and protect our communities from the scourge of illicit drugs."
"The shipment of illegal and dangerous narcotics remains a plague on our streets. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service remains steadfast in our commitment to work with our partners in law enforcement to do everything we can to bring these drug dealers to justice and protect communities across Montana and the country," said Assistant Inspector in Charge (AIC) Jarrod Resendez, of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
"There's no question that Mexico is the source of illegal drugs pouring into our state. These cases – which are the culmination of years of investigative and prosecutorial work – put that to rest," Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen said. "Our DCI narcotics agents and Highway Patrol troopers work closely with federal and local partners every day, and I'll continue our work to strengthen those partnerships to keep drugs out of Montana and put traffickers behind bars."
"I am very grateful for the multi-jurisdictional approach and the cooperation between local, state and federal law enforcement. These are lengthy, labor-intensive and detailed operations," Butte Silver Bow Sheriff Ed Lester said. "This investigation was very successful in that a significant number of defendants were indicted. It puts drug traffickers on notice that Southwest Montana is a very dangerous place to do business."
In court statements, the government estimated that the overall drug trafficking network was responsible for bringing 2,043 pounds of meth and 722,000 fentanyl-laced pills from Mexico to Butte for redistribution, with approximately $2.98 million laundered in drug proceeds. During the investigation, law enforcement seized 65 pounds of methamphetamine, which is the equivalent of 235,560 doses, more than 2,000 counterfeit oxycontin pills containing fentanyl and three pounds of heroin. Law enforcement also seized $32,875 in cash and 19 firearms.
The government said Mexico suppliers brought drugs on rail and by individuals across the border at ports of entry to stash houses in Southern California. The traffickers then transported multi-pound quantities by vehicle and through the mail to Butte. From Butte, local dealers trafficked the drugs to Missoula, Helena, Great Falls, Bozeman, Billings and Wolf Point for street-level distribution. The dealers then laundered drug proceeds through the mail, cash shipments and wire transactions back to the Mexico suppliers.
MT defendants convicted:
• Charles Clement, 36, of Butte – Conspiracy– 54 months in prison
• Steve Shipe, 52, of Butte – Conspiracy – 60 months in prison
• Jeremy Rivers, 45, of Butte – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 60 months in prison
• Dale Johnson, 27, of Butte – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 46 months in prison
• Michael Robert Lee, 25, of Helena – 46 months in prison
• James Starcevich, 25, of Butte – Conspiracy – 5 years of supervision, 1 day in prison
• Charles Petty, 34, of Butte – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 120 months in prison
• MaryJane Galloway, 37, of Butte – Deceased prior to sentencing
• Shawn Miller, 33, of Butte – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 60 months in prison
• Josh Schroeder, 40, of Butte – Conspiracy – 188 months in prison
• David Shaver, 34, of Butte – Conspiracy – 54 months in prison
• David Viers, 59, of Butte – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 12 months in prison
• Opal Cox, 40, of Great Falls – Conspiracy – 144 months in prison
• Travis Soderberg, 47, of Butte – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 96 months in prison
• Deric Sherman, 55, of Butte – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 78 months in prison
• Anthony Lamere, 33, of Butte (formerly of Whitehall) – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 84 months in prison
• Gloria Lucero, 54, of Great Falls – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 64 months in prison
• Clayton Cleland, 40, of Butte – Conspiracy – 54 months in prison
CA defendants convicted:
• Oscar Luna, 32, Bakersfield – Conspiracy – 72 months in prison
• Heriberto Tavares, 29, Anaheim – Possession with Intent to Distribute, sentencing set for February 21, 2023
MX defendants convicted:
• Humberto Villareal, 34, Culiacan, Sinaloa – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 204 months in prison
• Ricardo Ramos Medina, 34, Culiacan, Sinaloa – Conspiracy – 96 months in prison
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan G. Weldon prosecuted the cases.
The Drug Enforcement Administration and Montana Department of Justice's Division of Criminal Investigation led the investigation, with assistance from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Homeland Security Investigations, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Montana Highway Patrol, the Southwest Montana Drug Task Force, Butte Silver Bow Law Enforcement and Butte Silver Bow County Attorney's Office.
This prosecution is part of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) investigation. OCDETF identifies, disrupts and dismantles the highest-level drug traffickers, money launderers, gangs and transnational criminal organizations that threaten the United States by using a prosecutor-led, intelligence-driven, multi-agency approach that leverages the strengths of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies against criminal networks.