Criminal Justice News

Friday, January 19, 2018

U. S. Marshals Raising The Award For Escaped Prisoner

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – The U.S. Marshals are asking for the public’s help in finding an escaped prisoner, Jerry Mercado, who absconded from the Carl Robinson Correctional Facility in Enfield, Connecticut on January 7. 

Mercado, 25, is a convicted burglar who was serving a state sentence. He is 5’4 and 140 pounds, has two visible tattoos, one on his neck stating “Time waits for no one” and a second tattoo on his left temple. Mercado may have fled the state of Connecticut and may be hiding out in neighboring states, including the New York City metro area where a tip was received.
The U.S. Marshals Violent Fugitive Task Force is now offering a cash award of up to $2,500
dollars for information leading to the arrest of Mercado. Any information will be considered confidential. Persons having information should contact the U.S. Marshals at 1-877-Wanted-2 (1-877-926-8332), email at USMS.WANTED@USDOJ.GOV or by calling 911. Individuals should not attempt to apprehend Mercado themselves. 

The media is asked to release this info to affiliates in the surrounding states for distribution.   The task force is working together with Connecticut State Police, Hartford Police, Connecticut Parole and the Department of Corrections.  The Violent Fugitive Task Force is a team of law enforcement officers led by U.S. Marshals from the District of Connecticut. The task force’s objective is to seek out and arrest violent fugitives and sexual predators. Membership agencies include; Hartford, New Haven, Hamden, West Haven, Bridgeport, Norwalk, and Waterbury Police Departments as well as CT Parole. 

Two Top Leaders in Italy and Five Us Residents Indicted for Racketeering, Health Care Fraud and Drug Trafficking Conspiracies to Distribute Opioids Resulting in Deaths Involving “Pill Mills” Operating in Tennessee and Florida

Investigation is Part of the Attorney General’s Opioid Fraud and Abuse Task Force Initiative

On Jan. 4, a federal grand jury in Knoxville, Tennessee, returned a 14-count superseding indictment unsealed today charging seven individuals for their roles in a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) conspiracy and drug trafficking conspiracy to distribute and dispense oxycodone, oxymorphone and morphine outside the scope of professional practice and not for a legitimate medical purpose and resulting in deaths, maintenance of drug-involved premises, distribution of oxycodone resulting in death, conspiracy to defraud the United States through the solicitation and receipt of illegal healthcare kickbacks and money laundering.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Acting Assistant Attorney General John P. Cronan of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney J. Douglas Overbey of the Eastern District of Tennessee and Special Agent in Charge Renae M. McDermott of the FBI’s Knoxville Division made the announcement.

“Throughout this country, and certainly in Tennessee and Florida, the illegal and unconscionable mass-distribution of prescription opioids through the operation of illegal pain clinics has taken a heavy toll on our citizens, families and communities,” said Attorney General Sessions.  “This sort of profiteering effectively trades human lives for financial riches.  The U.S. Department of Justice is determined to stamp out the operation of illegal pain clinics by all legal means, including finding and arresting those responsible wherever they may be in the world.”

“The Eastern District of Tennessee has been at the forefront in the battle against illegal pain clinics and mass-prescribing of opioids for years,” said U.S. Attorney Overbey.  “Now, under the leadership of Attorney General Sessions, additional resources have been made available through recent Department of Justice initiatives, including the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Task Force.  This latest indictment is a real and tangible result of all of those combined efforts.  The citizens of East Tennessee can be assured that we are committed to ridding our district of illegal pill mills.”

Luca Sartini, 58, of Rome, Italy, and Miami; Luigi Palma aka Jimmy Palma, 51, of Rome, Italy, and Miami; Benjamin Rodriguez, 42, of Delray Beach, Florida; Sylvia Hofstetter, 53, of Knoxville; Courtney Newman, 42, of Knoxville; Cynthia Clemons, 45, of Knoxville; and Holli Womack aka Holli Carmichael, 44, of Knoxville, are charged in a third superseding indictment filed in the Eastern District of Tennessee.

On Jan. 19, Sartini and Palma were arrested in the Rome, Italy-area by Italian authorities.  Extradition is being sought by the United States.  Rodriguez is set to self-surrender.  All other defendants were previously charged in prior indictments.  The case has been assigned to Chief U.S. District Court Judge Thomas A. Varlan in Knoxville.

According to the indictment, Sartini, Palma, Rodriguez, Hofstetter and a co-conspirator charged in another indictment, from about April 2009 to March 2015, ran the Urgent Care & Surgery Center Enterprise (UCSC), which operated opioid based pain management clinics, “pill mills,” in Florida and Tennessee, where powerful narcotics were prescribed and/or dispensed.  The defendants are alleged to have hired medical providers with DEA registration numbers, which would allow the providers to prescribe controlled substances. The prescriptions were primarily large doses of highly addictive and potentially deadly controlled substances. As alleged in the indictment, individuals seeking prescriptions would often travel long distances purporting to suffer from severe chronic pain. 

The superseding indictment alleges the defendants distributed quantities of oxycodone, oxymorphone and morphine sufficient to generate clinic revenue of at least $21 million.  As per the indictment, the clinics did not accept insurance, received gross fees and ordered unnecessary drug screenings defrauding Medicare.  Shell companies were set up to launder the proceeds.

As alleged in the indictment, approximately 700 UCSC enterprise patients are now dead and a significant percentage of those deaths, directly or indirectly, were the result of overdosing on narcotics prescribed by the USSC Enterprise. As alleged in the indictment, the narcotics prescribed by the UCSC enterprise contributed to the deaths of another significant percentage of those patients.

The indictment further alleges that many patients arrived in groups, who were sponsored by drug dealers who paid for the pain clinic visits and prescriptions to obtain all or part of the opioids and other narcotics prescribed to the purported pain patients. In return, drug addicted patients would receive a portion of prescribed narcotics for free from the sponsor.

To date, as a result of this investigation, approximately 30 narcotics traffickers have been charged and convicted federally, and approximately 80 to 90 smaller narcotic distributers have also been charged and convicted.  Today’s superseding indictment is among 35 related indictments charging approximately 140 individuals, including medical providers who worked at the pill mills, with various crimes.

The charges in the indictment are merely allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

The superseding indictment is the result of an investigation conducted by the the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee, Criminal Division’s Organized Crime and Gang Section, , and the FBI High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) which is comprised of investigators assigned to the task force by the Loudon County Sheriff’s Office, Knoxville Police Department, Blount County Sheriff’s Office, Roane County Sheriff’s Office, Harriman Police Department and Clinton Police Department.  Other agencies provided invaluable assistance, including the Rome Attaché of the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs; the FBI’s liaison in Rome; the FBI Miami Health Care Fraud Strike Force; the Hollywood, Florida Police Department; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; the Tennessee Department of Health; and the DEA’s Knoxville Diversion Group.  The Department of Justice extends its gratitude to Interpol and the Italian Financial Police (Guardia di Finanza) for their assistance in locating and apprehending the defendants.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Tracy L. Stone and Anne-Marie Svolto of the Eastern District of Tennessee, and Trial Attorney Kelly Pearson of the Criminal Division’s Organized Crime and Gang Section, are prosecuting the case.

In light of the nationwide opioid epidemic which led to the declaration of a public health emergency by the Acting Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services on Oct. 26, 2017, this superseding indictment represents just the latest in a series of federal efforts in the Eastern District of Tennessee meant to combat the scourge of prescription opioids.

DEA investigation unravels drug trafficking and corruption by Honduran congressman

Conspiracy included massive cocaine loads from Colombia and elsewhere for U.S. import, safe passage, bribes, government protection

WASHINGTON – A member of the Honduran National Congress faces U.S. charges for drug trafficking, weapons and conspiracy thanks to a DEA-led international drug investigation, federal law enforcement officials announced today. Honduran Congressman Fredy Renan Najera Montoya has been charged in Manhattan federal court with conspiring to import cocaine into the United States and related weapons offenses involving the use and possession of machine guns and destructive devices. The United States is seeking Najera’s extradition from Honduras and he faces a maximum of life imprisonment if convicted.

“Najera used his position in the Honduran Congress to facilitate huge amounts of drug trafficking and corruption, while using security teams possessing dangerous and deadly weapons that threaten the rule of law and innocent lives,” said Raymond Donovan, DEA Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Special Operations Division, which coordinates multi-agency, multi-national drug trafficking and narco-terror operations worldwide. “DEA will continue to go after these dangerous criminal individuals and their violent networks with our counterparts across the world utilizing every law enforcement tool at our disposal.”

According to the DEA investigation and in the charges announced, multiple drug-trafficking organizations in Honduras and elsewhere worked together with support from Najera and others to receive multi-hundred kilogram loads of cocaine sent to Honduras from Colombia and elsewhere via air and maritime routes. Their criminal scheme also included drug transport westward in Honduras toward the border with Guatemala and eventually to the United States. For protection from official interference, and in order to facilitate the safe passage through Honduras of the cocaine loads, drug traffickers paid bribes to public officials, including certain members of the National Congress of Honduras.

Najera is a member of the National Congress of Honduras who participated in and supported the drug-trafficking activities of large-scale drug traffickers in Honduras and high-ranking members of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel. For example, Najera facilitated the receipt of cocaine-laden aircraft at clandestine landing strips in Honduras that were protected by heavily armed security personnel so that the cocaine could be transported through Honduras, sold to the Sinaloa Cartel, and imported into the United States. Najera also participated in a maritime cocaine-trafficking venture that involved a $50,000 bribe paid to Fabio Porfirio Lobo, whose father was the President of Honduras at the time of the payment. On September 5, 2017, in United States v. Lobo, No. 15 Cr. 174 (LGS), U.S. District Judge Lorna G. Schofield sentenced Lobo principally to 24 years’ imprisonment based on his conviction for participating in a conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States.

 “As alleged, Fredy Renan Najera Montoya used his power and influence as a Honduran congressman to help facilitate the transport of huge quantities of cocaine from Colombia through Honduras, and ultimately to the streets of the United States,” said Manhattan United States Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman. “Along with the DEA, we are committed to attacking the drug trade at every level, regardless of a defendant’s status. We look forward to trying Najera on U.S. soil.”

 Najera, 41, was charged with three counts:  (1) conspiring to import cocaine into the United States, (2) using and carrying machine guns and destructive devices during, and possessing machine guns and destructive devices in furtherance of, the cocaine-importation conspiracy, and (3) conspiring to use and carry machine guns and destructive devices during, and to possess machine guns and destructive devices in furtherance of, the cocaine-importation conspiracy.  If convicted, Najera faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment and a maximum term of life imprisonment on Count One, a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years’ imprisonment and a maximum term of life imprisonment on Count Two, and a maximum term of 20 years’ imprisonment on Count Three.
DEA’s Special Operations Division Bilateral Investigations Unit coordinated this investigation, which included the DEA New York Strike Force, and DEA Tegucigalpa Country Office, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs.