Montana Drug Operation Convicts 20 Defendants, Seizes 25 Guns and More Than Half a Million Dollars in Meth
GREAT FALLS – The U.S. Attorney’s Office announces today the completion of a Montana operation that convicted 20 defendants for methamphetamine, firearm and money laundering charges, resulting in the seizure of more than half a million dollars worth of meth. Operation Highline Crystal Highway joined more than a dozen law enforcement agencies in Montana and California and resulted in the seizure of an estimated 13 pounds of meth, and also identified another estimated 50 pounds of meth involved in the drug conspiracy. Law enforcement also seized 25 guns as part of the operation. The guns were either traded directly for meth or traded as payment for debt owed for meth. The defendants are also responsible for a monetary judgment totaling approximately $2.4 million for the money gained from the methamphetamine trafficking conspiracy, which includes nearly $56,000 in money laundering proceeds.
“This multi-agency collaboration is a testament to the power of strength in numbers,” said U.S. Attorney Michael W. Cotter of the District of Montana. “This operation dismantled an acute and violent threat to the people of Great Falls, Montana, and surrounding communities and I am pleased to announce the conviction of the 20th defendant in this operation.”
“It was a great investigative effort between local, state and federal agencies targeting a very significant drug distribution network in the Great Falls area and a Mexican source of supply based in California,” said Resident Agent in Charge Joe Kirkland of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “By dismantling a criminal organization of this size, the task force has had a huge impact on the distribution of methamphetamine in Montana.”
The 20th defendant who was sentenced today in Great Falls was Joshua Alberto Rodriguez, 29, of Los Angeles, California. He was sentenced after pleading guilty to crimes involving methamphetamine, firearm and money laundering conspiracies. U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris of the District of Montana sentenced Rodriguez to over 22 years in prison, followed by five years supervised release. The court also ordered that Rodriguez was liable, along with the other defendants, for approximately $2.4 million in proceeds and nearly $56,000 in money laundering proceeds.
Operation Highline Crystal Highway is a major, multi-agency drug investigation first launched in late 2013. Law enforcement discovered a large-scale drug and firearm trafficking organization in north central Montana and beyond, which included suppliers out of Los Angeles, routinely bringing pounds of meth to Great Falls. Once in Great Falls, the meth would be distributed in Great Falls, Havre, Montana and Butte, Montana. In the final arrest that took place outside a Great Falls restaurant, law enforcement found one defendant with a loaded 9 mm semi-automatic pistol in his waistband, as well as a loaded .40 caliber, semi-automatic pistol in one of the take out bags with approximately 70 rounds of ammunition. Agents also seized approximately five pounds of meth from the defendant’s hotel room. The DEA tested the meth and its purity level was 100 percent. Meth seized during earlier parts of the operation also resulted in extremely high purity levels—ranging from 97 to 100 percent.
Law enforcement seized 25 guns, 19 of which were handguns and monetary judgments against defendants totaling approximately $2.4 million. Based on evidence collected during the investigation, other guns discussed by defendants or used in trade for drugs, but not recovered, included the FN Five Seven (referred to as the “Cop Killer”), AR-15 and AK-47. These weapons were likely attractive to this group because they are capable of piercing body armor. A large-caliber handgun, the Desert Eagle .50 caliber pistol, was also seized.
“These convictions serve to put criminals on notice that if you bring illegal drugs into this community, we will employ whatever means necessary to find you and bring you to justice, wherever you are,” said Police Chief David Bowen of the Great Falls Police Department.
To assist in investigating the Great Falls meth influx, law enforcement began to use a variety of investigative techniques, including physical surveillance, obtaining phone records, financial documents and search warrants in order to ascertain the location information on cellular phones and vehicles and utilizing undercover agents to infiltrate the organization. Over the course of the investigation, agents obtained 49 search warrants and a wiretap to monitor phone calls and the location of suspects.
A Montana grand jury ultimately indicted 20 defendants responsible for the drug trafficking organization. Nineteen of the defendants pleaded guilty and one was convicted at trial.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jessica Betley and Tara Elliott of the District of Montana. The case was investigated by the Russell County, Montana, Drug Task Force, which includes representation from the Great Falls Police Department, Cascade County, Montana, Sheriff’s Office, Teton County, Montana, Sheriff’s Office, the DEA, U.S. Border Patrol, Homeland Security Investigations and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The task force also collaborated with the Havre Tri-Agency Task Force, IRS, the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation, Montana National Guard Counter Drug Task Force, the California Highway Patrol and the Orange County, California, Sheriff’s Office.