Criminal Justice News

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Drug Distribution Conspirator Sentenced to Federal Prison


United States Attorney Brandon J. Fremin announced today that U.S. District Judge John W. deGravelles sentenced DARWIN A. ELPHAGE a/k/a “Zero,” age 40, of Gonzales, Louisiana, to 120 months in federal prison following his conviction for conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute one kilogram or more of heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846 and 18 U.S.C. § 2; distribution of heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1); possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1); and unlawful use of communication facilities, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 843(b).

ELPHAGE was charged in an extensive federal, state, and local investigation aimed at dismantling a large scale heroin trafficking network based in Ascension Parish, Louisiana, and Houston, Texas.  The indictment charges significant drug trafficking, racketeering, firearm, and conspiracy charges.  To date, investigative efforts have resulted in the seizure of over one and a half kilograms of heroin, substantial amounts of methamphetamine, crack cocaine, and oxycodone. Authorities have also seized seven firearms, over $314,000 in drug proceeds, and three vehicles allegedly used in the drug trafficking venture: a 2013 Porsche 911, a Mercedes CLS550, and a GMC Hummer.

From September 22, 2015 to April of 2016, ELPHAGE conspired with eleven additional members of the drug trafficking organization to distribute in excess of one kilogram of heroin, in the Middle District of Louisiana, as set forth in the Indictment.

As part of the conspiracy, Jason Muse purchased kilogram quantities of heroin from Morito Tobar, Aron Winter Mosquera-Castro, Santos Mosquera-Candelo, and Fabio Zuniga-Caicedo.  ELPHAGE, working under the direction of Jason Muse, distributed the heroin to Jason Muse’s customers and his own customers for further distribution in Baton Rouge, Ascension Parish, and elsewhere.                                      

U.S. Attorney Fremin stated, “There is no room for this kind behavior in our communities…none. Fortunately, when it comes to kilo-level drug dealers like this defendant, there is room in the federal penitentiary. This is yet another reminder that bad behavior by dangerous felons results in significant sentences in federal court. Removing deadly drugs like heroin, oxycodone, crack, and meth from the streets of Ascension Parish makes our communities safer. I am extremely proud of the efforts of the many law enforcement partners on the local, state and federal levels who joined forces in an effort to dismantle this operation.”

“The sentencing today of DARWIN A. ELPHAGE a/k/a “Zero, sends a clear message to all who engage in the distribution of illegal drugs and to those who plague our neighborhoods with violence that we will work together to see that you are brought to justice.  Federal and local law enforcement successfully collaborated in order to put ELPHAGE in federal prison for 120 months as a result of his involvement with a violent drug trafficking organization in the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Area,”said Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Brad L. Byerley.

This operation is being handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Baton Rouge City Police Department, the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office, the Iberville Parish Sheriff’s Office, the West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, the Louisiana State Police, and the Gonzales Police Department.  This matter is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Jennifer Kleinpeter, who also serves as a deputy criminal chief.

The investigation is another effort by the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) Program that was established in 1982 to mount a comprehensive attack against organized drug traffickers.  Today, the OCDETF Program is the centerpiece of the United States Attorney General’s drug strategy to reduce the availability of drugs by disrupting and dismantling major drug trafficking organizations and money laundering organizations and related criminal enterprises.  The OCDETF Program operates nationwide and combines the resources and unique expertise of numerous federal, state, and local agencies in a coordinated attack against major drug trafficking and money laundering organizations.

McNairy County Man Convicted of Methamphetamine Trafficking


Jackson, TN – Following a jury trial in federal court, Michael Jay Harris, 46, of McNairy County, Tenn. was convicted of possessing 98 grams of actual methamphetamine with the intent to distribute. U.S. Attorney D. Michael Dunavant for the Western District of Tennessee announced the conviction today.

According to information presented in court, on February 13, 2017, agents with the McNairy County Narcotics Unit, including officers with the Selmer Police Department and McNairy County Sheriff’s Department, went to the residence of Michael Jay Harris, in the northwestern corner of McNairy County, in Finger, Tenn., to arrest Harris on an outstanding warrant.

While searching the residence, law enforcement discovered Harris was in possession of a bag containing three and a half ounces of ice methamphetamine and marijuana, as well as digital scales and drug paraphernalia. Harris became combative and attempted to fight the officers. A chemist with the Drug Enforcement Administration stated the methamphetamine was more than 97 percent pure, and an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation testified it could have been distributed to more than a thousand drug users, based on its purity.

U.S. Attorney D. Michael Dunavant said, "Harris is a career drug offender who was destroying this rural community by his sale of poisonous drugs, and his prior felony convictions have finally caught up with him. Thanks to the great investigative work by our local law enforcement partners at the Selmer Police Department and the McNairy County Sheriff’s Department, he has been held accountable and removed from the community."

Sentencing is set for November 9, 2018, before U.S. District Judge J. Daniel Breen. Harris has a lengthy criminal history, including convictions for trafficking in cocaine and morphine, and assault charges. Based on his prior convictions, he faces up to life imprisonment.

This investigation was conducted by the Selmer Police Department, McNairy County Sheriff’s Department, and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Wilson prosecuted this case on behalf of the government.

Assistant Attorney General Benczkowski Announces Newark/Philadelphia Regional Medicare Fraud Strike Force


NEWARK, N.J. – Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division today announced the formation of the Newark/Philadelphia Regional Medicare Fraud Strike Force (Regional Strike Force), a joint law enforcement effort that brings together the resources and expertise of the Health Care Fraud Unit in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division’s Fraud Section (HCF Unit), the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the District of New Jersey and the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, as well as law enforcement partners at the FBI, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General (HHS-OIG) and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Assistant Attorney General Benczkowski was joined in the announcement by U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito for the District of New Jersey; U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania; Assistant Director Robert Johnson of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division; Deputy Inspector General Gary Cantrell of the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG) and Assistant Administrator John Martin of the DEA.

“The devastation the opioid epidemic is inflicting on communities across the country and here in the Mid-Atlantic region is staggering—and health care fraud has played a role in feeding that epidemic,” said Assistant Attorney General Benczkowski.  “It is estimated that each year tens of billions of dollars in American taxpayer money are lost to fraud, waste, abuse and improper payments. According to the CDC, in 2016, more than 40 percent of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths involved a prescription opioid. Our Medicare Fraud Strike Forces, which we have now expanded into Newark and Philadelphia, constitute one of our most important and effective means for containing these threats to the American people.”

“New Jersey is home to some of the best healthcare facilities and most successful pharmaceutical companies in the country,” U.S. Attorney Carpenito said.  “Unfortunately, that also means that we offer substantial targets for those who would try to defraud the health care system or try to profit from the misery of people battling addiction to opioids. We’ve already developed one robust unit to go after these criminals, the Healthcare & Government Fraud Unit, and I added another, the Opioids Unit, in February upon rejoining the office as U.S. Attorney. The arrival of the Medicare Fraud Strike Force in our District will serve as an additional force-multiplier and enable us to do even more of these cases, further protecting the citizens of New Jersey from this kind of fraud and abuse.”

“Medicare fraud costs our government billions of dollars,” Special Agent in Charge Gregory W. Ehrie of the Newark FBI Field Office said. “The Medicare Strike Force will aggressively target waste, fraud and abuse in federal health care programs ameliorating the intolerable burden on the taxpayer and Health Care System.”

“The proven-effective Strike Force model combining specialized investigators and prosecutors will no doubt be highly successful in the ongoing fight against health care fraud in the District of New Jersey,” said Scott J. Lampert, Special Agent in Charge for the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “We look forward to working closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Justice Department’s Criminal Division, FBI, DEA, and other law enforcement partners to protect taxpayer-funded federal health care programs and the millions who rely on those benefits.”

“The Newark/Philadelphia Regional Medicare Fraud Strike Force is a great opportunity for collaboration with our partners to share vital information,” Valerie A. Nickerson, Special Agent in Charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s New Jersey Division said. “This Strike Force can be an effective tool to combat these crimes by combining the resources of the agencies that are responsible for detecting, enforcing and prosecuting violations of these regulations and laws.”

Prior to this announcement, the HCF Unit operated Medicare Fraud Strike Force’s in 10 cities across the United States including Miami, Florida; Los Angeles, California; Detroit, Michigan; Houston, Texas; Brooklyn, New York; Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana; Tampa, Florida; Chicago, Illinois; and Dallas, Texas, along with a Corporate Strike Force located in Washington, D.C.  The Strike Forces represent a partnership between the Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney’s Offices, the FBI and HHS-OIG. 

The Regional Strike Force will be made up of prosecutors and data analysts with the HCF Unit, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the District of New Jersey and Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and special agents with the FBI, HHS-OIG and DEA.  In addition, the Regional Strike Force will work closely with other various federal law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and IRS Criminal Investigation, and State Medicaid Fraud Control Units.  The Strike Force will focus its efforts on aggressively investigating and prosecuting cases involving fraud, waste, and abuse within our federal health care programs, and cases involving illegal prescribing and distribution of opioids and other dangerous narcotics. 

In June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and HHS Secretary Alex M. Azar III noted the success of the Strike Force model while announcing the largest ever health care fraud enforcement action involving 601 charged defendants across 58 federal districts, including 165 doctors, nurses and other licensed medical professionals, for their alleged participation in health care fraud schemes involving more than $2 billion in false billings.  Of those charged, 162 defendants, including 76 doctors, were charged for their roles in prescribing and distributing opioids and other dangerous narcotics. More information can be obtained at https://www.justice.gov/opa/documents-and-resources-june-28-2018.

The Strike Force operations are part of a joint initiative between the Department of Justice and HHS to focus their efforts to prevent and deter fraud and enforce current anti-fraud laws around the country.  Since its inception in March 2007, the prosecutors in the 10 Medicare Fraud Strike Force locations have charged over 3,700 defendants who collectively have falsely billed the Medicare program for over $14 billion.