By Gary Harmon and Paul Shockley
Grand Junction Daily Sentinel
By Sean McMahon
MEEKER I The end of a drug ring long rumored to operate in Grand Junction took shape April 16, when local and federal officials stopped a car bound for Las Vegas to collect 3.5 kilograms of cocaine in exchange for $95,500 in cash.
That event set off a dragnet laid out in a Mesa County grand jury indictment that day against 36 people on drug-related charges. Those identified as leaders of the organization also face racketeering charges.
Local and federal officials on Thursday sketched out the events that led to the stop and explained how a ring whose existence had been rumored for 10 years was brought to light and quashed.
The investigation also unveiled how trafficking in illegal drugs can reach not only cities such as Grand Junction, but to smaller locales, such as Rifle and Meeker, where the ring was operating out of a Mexican restaurant.
Authorities said the restaurant owner, Francisco Peralta-Cabral, 44, of Meeker, known as “Pancho,” was the U.S. head of the drug-dealing operation with tentacles across the Western Slope, including ownership of the Los Koras Mexican restaurant in Meeker.
Meeker Police Chief Robert Hervey said Tuesday that for several months the Meeker Police Department had been working with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency on a major drug investigation. He added that on April 23 that investigation resulted in the arrest of Peralta-Cabral.
Peralta-Cabral was described as an alleged “kingpin” of an organization that operated throughout the country, selling large quantities of methamphetamine and cocaine, mainly in Mesa and Garfield counties, the MPD press release stated.
Meeker Police Lt. Phil Stubblefield and Officer Wes Severson led the local investigation, working closely with DEA agents from Mesa County, Hervey stated.
“On April 23, the officers arrested Peralta-Cabral at the restaurant and assisted with a search of the restaurant and Peralta-Cabral’s apartment, located at 1040 Schultz Dr. in Meeker.
Peralta-Cabral was held briefly in Rio Blanco County Jail before being turned over to the DEA to be transported to Mesa County, where he is still being held on a $1 million cash-only bond.
Rio Blanco County Sheriff Si Woodruff said Monday that he was not informed of the drug sting operation and that neither he nor his department played any role in the investigation or indictment.
Peralta-Cabral was indicted on two counts of racketeering, in violation of Colorado’s Organized Crime Control Act, two counts of possession with intent to distribute more than 1 kilogram of a controlled substance, distribution of a controlled substance and two counts of conspiracy.
He reportedly bowed his head in court on April 24 and said little as a Spanish-language translator read the charges.
The indictment stated that Peralta-Cabral, Jose Zepeda-Osuna, 34, of Rifle, also known as “Primo” or “Primito,” and Brisia Jasso-Diaz allegedly arranged for the purchase of meth or cocaine and imported it into the United States through an individual known only as Cain, pronounced “Kai-een,” in Mexico. Jasso-Diaz was not listed in the initial indictment.
It appears the ring, which had no name, had ties to a Mexican cartel, “but we’re not prepared to say which one,” said Jim Schrant, resident agent in charge of the Grand Junction office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The ring was reportedly headed by Cain in Mexico, said Dan Rubinstein, Mesa County chief deputy district attorney.
U.S. officials are looking to establish contact with Mexican authorities in hopes of taking Cain into custody, Schrant said.
There is reason for optimism on that front because relations between the two nations have improved over the past five years, Schrant said.
It’s possible that more people than the 36 indicted are involved in the ring, Rubinstein said.
One undeniable fact, however, is that the organization was crippled and the arrests “severely limited the supply of drugs in western Colorado, at least for a time,” Rubinstein said.
The first peek into the long-rumored ring took place Dec. 15, Rubinstein said.
According to the 43-page indictment, Jose Zepeda-Osuna, 34, of Rifle, met the manager of El Tapatio Restaurant, 1145 North Ave., in Grand Junction on or about Dec. 20, 2012, and provided the manager with 13 pounds of methamphetamine or cocaine.
Zepeda-Osuna was provided with an unknown amount of cash.
The manager of the restaurant hasn’t been identified, and Zepeda-Osuna remained in the Mesa County Jail on $500,000 bond.
Information from confidential informants and wiretaps revealed a ring that apparently had developed a code for certain drugs and activities.
A “chicken,” for instance, referred to either a pound of methamphetamine or a pound of cocaine. “Salsa” referred to methamphetamine, as did “girls.” Cocaine was known as “soda.”
For Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey, it was telling that a major prong of the investigation led back to his native Meeker, where Peralta-Cabral owned Los Koros restaurant.
Not even small, remote places such as Meeker are immune to the depredations of the illicit drug trade, Hilkey said.
Los Koros had been in business in Meeker for several years and was something of a fixture there, Hilkey said.
The arrests will serve as a reminder that for those who “bring filth” into such communities, Hilkey said, “the reach is long” from local and federal law enforcement officials.
Elimination of the ring will mean that small, unrelated dealers will be at risk of even more scrutiny now that a major supplier has been sidelined, Rubinstein said.
The investigation and subsequent arrests demonstrate that the none of the three fronts of the battle against methamphetamine has been abandoned, District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said.
Prevention and treatment are important, but the arrests demonstrate that enforcement remains “a very robust” approach to illicit drug use, Hautzinger said.
Law enforcement agencies across western Colorado worked seamlessly together after the Tuesday traffic stop forced the issue, officials said.
“Citizens can be very proud” of the way the investigation was conducted, Grand Junction Police Chief John Camper said.
Other agencies involved in the investigation included the Western Colorado Drug Task Force, Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team and several police and sheriff’s departments, including Garfield County, Glenwood Springs, Vail, Parachute, Rifle, Carbondale, New Castle, Gunnison and Eagle County.
The Kansas State Police and Thomas County, Kan., County Attorney’s Office also participated.
All prosecutions will be conducted out of the Mesa County District Attorney’s Office, Hautzinger said.