charged as DEA, ICE dismantle major Bay Area Ecstasy smuggling
SAN FRANCISCO – Five individuals are in custody and a sixth suspect is being sought following a series of enforcement actions earlier today by the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) targeting a Bay Area-based criminal organization that allegedly used imported pianos, auto transmissions, and sofas to smuggle large quantities of Ecstasy into the United States.
The ring is suspected of smuggling at least 906 kilograms of Ecstasy into the country, the equivalent of more than three million doses. The affidavit in support of the criminal complaint details how the organization allegedly smuggled the chemical into the country secreted inside BMW transmissions, European pianos, and high-end leather sofas. The affidavit further alleges that the defendants laundered more than $3 million in proceeds from the sale of the drug.
The suspected ringleader of the organization, Johnson Mai, 43, and his wife Lisa Lee, 42, were arrested at their Hillsborough, California home early this morning. Also arrested at their residences today were Eric Yu Heng Cai, 34, Zhi En Huang, 37, and David Yuen, 37. The sixth suspect in the case, Kai Lun Zheng, 36, remains at large and is still being sought. All six of the defendants are accused of conspiracy to distribute Ecstasy and five of the suspects also face money laundering charges.
As part of this morning’s enforcement actions, DEA and ICE agents also executed search warrants targeting six locations in the East Bay and Peninsula. Seized today was approximately 70,000 Ecstasy pills, three (3) guns, $40 – 50,000.00 U.S. Currency, and three cars. Arrested were two additional people associated with this organization.
“When we warn traffickers that we leave no stone unturned when looking for illegal drugs, perhaps we should have mentioned that this includes pianos, sofas and car transmissions,” stated DEA Special Agent in Charge Javier F. Peña. “DEA, along with our counterparts in law enforcement, will seize millions of dollars in assets derived from the illicit drug trafficking of this organization. The arrests and seizures this week demonstrate our commitment to dismantling these organizations from top to bottom.”
The investigation began in 2001, after the Belgian Federal Police alerted U.S. Customs officials about a piano shipped from Germany to San Francisco International Airport with more than 40 kilograms of Ecstasy concealed inside. The ensuing investigation revealed that the ring was importing and distributing Ecstasy not only in the Bay Area, but also in Los Angeles and Houston.
“This ring was smuggling significant quantities of Ecstasy into the United States,” said Charles DeMore, special agent in charge for the ICE office of investigations in San Francisco. “These pills sell on the street for as much as $60 a piece. That translates into huge profits that are often funneled back into further criminal activity. That is why ICE is determined to attack and dismantle these kinds of criminal enterprises.”
The case affidavit alleges the criminal organization headed by Mai began smuggling Ecstasy into the United States back in 2000. The court documents state that at least four of the defendants – Mai, Lee, Zheng, and Cai - used drug proceeds laundered through Hong Kong and U.S. bank accounts to purchase expensive Bay Area homes in Oakland, Hillsborough, and Burlingame.
The following individuals were charged with conspiracy to distribute Ecstasy:
In addition, the following defendants are also charged with money laundering: Johnson Mai, Lisa Lee, Kai Lun Zheng, Zhi En Huang, and Eric Yu Heng Cai.
The maximum statutory penalty for each count of conspiracy to distribute ecstasy is 20 years imprisonment. The maximum statutory penalty for each count of money laundering is up to 20 years imprisonment and a $500,000 fine.
This case is being prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of California. The charges are only allegations and the defendants are presumed innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
DEA and ICE received substantial assistance in the investigation from the United States Secret Service, the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement (BNE), the Oakland Police Department, the Union City Police Department, and the South Alameda County Narcotics Enforcement Team.