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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Southern District of Georgia

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, September 3, 2020

International money laundering, drug trafficking and illegal wildlife trade operation dismantled

Millions in gold, silver, jewels, cash, and illegally traded wildlife seized after multiple nationwide search warrants

Operation Apex cover image from news conference powerpoint - includes logos of participating federal agencies

Operation Apex image

 

SAVANNAH, GA:  An international conspiracy that profited from drug trafficking and the illegal wildlife trade and conspired to hide the illegal nature of the proceeds has been shut down in a multi-agency law enforcement operation.

Initiated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Operation Apex brought together multiple agencies under the umbrella of the Organized Crime Drug Task Forces (OCDETF) to target two businesses, in Florida and California, and a dozen individual defendants whose activities included international trade in illegal wildlife products, trafficking in marijuana, and a money laundering conspiracy to disguise the massive proceeds of the unlawful activities that spanned at least a 10-year period, said Bobby L. Christine, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia.

Following the unsealing of an indictment in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and the U.S. Marshals Service arrested 12 defendants and conducted 22 federal search warrants from coast to coast, including the Southern District of Georgia, the Northern District of Georgia, the Northern District of Florida, the Eastern District of Michigan, the Central District of California, and the Northern District of California.

“Fearless and aggressive law enforcement brought an end to this sprawling, transnational conspiracy. In the end, the size of the conspiracy was overwhelmed by a coordinated law enforcement effort to infiltrate, document and dismantle it,” said U.S. Attorney Christine. “United with our partner agencies, we have shut down an operation that fed a seemingly insatiable overseas appetite for illegally traded wildlife, and seized ill-gotten assets derived from that despicable criminal enterprise.”      

The indictment in Operation Apex charges 12 defendants and two businesses with Mail and Wire Fraud Conspiracy; Conspiracy to Possess with Intent to Distribute and to Distribute Controlled Substances; and Money Laundering Conspiracy. The charges carry potential penalties of up to life in federal prison, where there is no parole.

As alleged in the 37-page indictment, conspirators in multiple locations in the United States, including the Southern District of Georgia, and in Hong Kong, Mexico, Canada, and elsewhere, were involved in the Wu transnational criminal organization that engaged in wildlife trafficking, shark finning, drug trafficking and money laundering.

The indictment alleges that the conspiracy began as early as 2010 as members of the conspiracy submitted false documents and used sham businesses and dozens of bank accounts to hide proceeds from the illegal activities. The indictment states that members of the conspiracy would deposit bulk cash from illegal activities, including wildlife trafficking and drug trafficking, into third-party business accounts that dealt in gold, precious metals, and jewels, to hide the illegal activities. Conspirators also deposited millions of dollars from illegal activities into third-party business accounts located in the United States, Mexico, and Hong Kong, in an effort to hide the illegal profits.

Shark finning is the barbaric practice of catching sharks at sea, cutting off their fins and throwing the injured shark back into the ocean to die. Shark finning is aimed at supporting the demand for shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy. Certain species of sharks are protected wildlife under federal and state law to ensure their continued sustainability.

During the arrests of the defendants and searches of their homes and workplaces, agents seized more than $3.9 million in multiple bank accounts; approximately $3 million in gold, silver, and other precious metals, along with $1 million in diamonds; approximately 18,000 marijuana plants and 34.5 pounds of processed marijuana; multiple firearms; and documented the harvest of more than six tons of shark fins. Agents also seized 18 totoaba fish bladders, a delicacy in Asia harvested illegally from an endangered species. Defendants charged in the case are:

  • Serendipity Solutions LLC, of San Bruno, Calif.;
  • Phoenix Fisheries LLC, of Southport, Fla.;
  • Terry Xing Zhao Wu, 45, of Burlingame, Calif.;
  • Natalie Ye Man Chan Wu, 38, of Burlingame, Calif.;
  • Woonjin Lam, 43, of San Francisco;
  • Anthony Wu, 24, of San Francisco;
  • Billy Chen, 61, of Walnut, Calif.;
  • Ying Le Pang, 47, of San Lorenzo, Calif.;
  • Mark Leon Harrison, 59, of Southport, Fla.;
  • Heather Huong Ngoc Luu, 46, of Westminster, Calif.;
  • Lam Phuoc Quang, 47, of Pasadena, Calif,;
  • Kevin Chinh Nguyen, 40, of Tucker, Ga.;
  • Elias Samuel Castellanos, 54, of Scottsdale, Ariz., and,
  • Terry Louis Shook, 56, of Grosse Pointe Park, Mich.

“The Trump Administration believes in law enforcement and tackling wildlife trafficking. By successfully dismantling this criminal operation, we are unveiling the true nature of criminal syndicates, in which species like sharks and totoaba are the silent victims,” said Aurelia Skipwith, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “I applaud and thank our partners at the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Postal Inspection Service and Homeland Security Investigations for their assistance with this case. Together, we will continue to protect imperiled species for future generations.

 “Removing dangerous drugs from the streets and hitting drug traffickers in their ‘pockets’ are both integral parts of dismantling sophisticated drug distribution networks, as was the case in this investigation,” said the Special Agent in Charge of DEA’s Atlanta Field Division Robert J. Murphy. “Their money is their lifeline and without it, their drug distribution activities cannot survive. This investigation was a success because of the investigative efforts by a collection of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies and the subsequent prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.” 

“Transnational criminal organizations continue to pose a significant threat to national and international security,” said Christopher Kennally, Savannah CBP Area Port Director.  “Our officers’ expertise, along with the utilization of available tools, and valuable partnerships resulted in the arrest of these criminals. Our communities can feel safer knowing that the men and women of CBP are securing their borders.”

“It’s a sad day when not even the sharks in the ocean are safe from the greed of criminal organizations,” said acting Special Agent in Charge Robert Hammer, who oversees Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) operations in Georgia and Alabama. “HSI Atlanta is a proud to have been a part of this operation and to work alongside our federal, state, and local partners to protect our communities and oceans.”

“The United States Postal Inspection Service stands ready and committed to assist its local, state and federal law enforcement partners in any type of investigation,” said USPIS-Miami Division Inspector in Charge Antonio Gomez. “This case highlights the great working relationships between all of the involved agencies, and serves as a reminder that criminal activity involving the mail will be identified and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

An indictment is only a charge and is not evidence of a crime. Defendants are presumed innocent unless and until convicted in a court of law. 

Operation Apex is an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) investigation.  The principal mission of the OCDETF program is to identify, disrupt, and dismantle the highest-level drug traffickers, money launderers, and other priority transnational criminal organizations that threaten the citizens of the United States using a prosecutor-led, intelligence driven, multi-agency approach to combat transnational organized crime.  The OCDETF program facilitates complex, joint operations by focusing its partner agencies on priority targets, by managing and coordinating multi-agency efforts, and by leveraging intelligence across multiple investigative platforms. 

Agencies conducting the investigation include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Investigations Unit, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Customs and Border Protection, and Homeland Security Investigations, in conjunction with state and local agencies including the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

The case is being prosecuted for the United States by Assistant U.S. Attorneys E. Greg Gilluly Jr., Tania Groover, Xavier Cunningham, and Joshua Bearden, with assistance from Trial Attorney Joseph Palazzo and the Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section of the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Updated September 4, 2020