Smugglers used checked luggage to move almost $13 million in drugs, authorities say

They were loaded onto flights from California to Florida, suitcases full of drugs including methamphetamine, cocaine and fentanyl.

For two years, authorities from more than a dozen Florida, California, and federal government agencies monitored the drug ring, using wiretapping devices and undercover buying to build a case that resulted in the largest single drug seizure and arrests in the history of Polk County, Florida , said Sheriff Grady Judd on Friday.

The investigation, dubbed Operation Flying Ice, resulted in 85 arrests and resulted in 355 felony charges and 93 misdemeanor charges, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office said. Authorities estimate the total street value of the drugs seized at more than $12.8 million.

Judd spoke about the effort during a Friday news conference, in which he railed against classifying drug offenses as minor and non-violent.

The sheriff also called Los Angeles International Airport. Once, six suitcases containing 94 pounds of methamphetamine and 48 pounds of cannabis arrived in Orlando from LA on a flight, he said.

“They didn’t even throw a pair of underwear in the suitcase to pretend to hide the drugs,” Judd said. “You think LAX has a drug smuggling problem at the airport? I believe they are doing it and they need to do it as soon as possible.”

Heath Montgomery, a LAX spokesman, said the Transportation Security Administration is responsible for baggage screening and referred questions to the TSA.

“TSA’s review procedures are focused on our security mission and are designed to detect potential threats to aviation and passengers,” said a TSA spokesman. “Accordingly, TSA security officials do not search for illegal drugs, but if discovered during the security screening process, TSA will escalate the matter to our law enforcement partners for action.”

The investigation began in September 2020 after detectives issued a search warrant in Winter Haven, Fla. and seized a pound of methamphetamine, the sheriff’s office said.

Detectives continued to make undercover purchases from dealers in the area and learned that large quantities of drugs were being smuggled from California to Florida via checked baggage on domestic flights, the sheriff’s office said. Investigators launched a wiretapping investigation in February 2022.

“We’re dealing with an international smuggling ring that operates out of Winter Haven,” Judd said.

According to the sheriff, investigators believe at least some of the drugs, most notably the methamphetamine, were smuggled into Los Angeles and Fresno from Mexico. The drugs then went out of these California hubs, some flowed into Memphis, Tennessee before coming to Orlando, and other shipments went straight from California to Florida.

In total, authorities seized 268 pounds of methamphetamine, 31 pounds of cocaine, 180 pounds of cannabis, 3.4 pounds of MDMA, 6.8 ounces of fentanyl, 68 Xanax pills, 173 oxycodone pills, 49 firearms, three inactive grenades, two ballistic vests, a stolen motorcycle and $235,000 in cash, the sheriff’s office said.

Officials named six Florida men as suspected ringleaders of the smuggling ring. Many of the 85 suspects arrested had long criminal records, with 194 prior felony convictions, the sheriff’s office said.

Investigators are looking for three other suspects: Jesus Barragan-Torres, 37, of Sanger, California; Darrion Jacob, 40, of Winter Haven; and Amanda Paige Wittke, 38, of Polk City, Fla. Smugglers used checked luggage to move almost $13 million in drugs, authorities say

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