19 named in medicinal pot indictment
June 23, 2005
Stacy Finz, San Francisco ChronicleThe U.S. government unsealed an indictment Thursday accusing 19 Bay Area people of drug trafficking and of using three San Francisco medical marijuana dispensaries as fronts for organized crime.
Agents arrested 15 people -- four are still at large -- in connection with the case and seized more than 9,309 pot plants with an estimated street value of $5 million Wednesday, effectively closing down two cannabis clubs in the Ingleside district and a third in the Inner Sunset district.Investigators called the raids at 26 Bay Area locations -- including homes and businesses -- one of the largest drug trafficking busts in the area since 1996.
Besides taking the marijuana plants, agents seized three firearms, 50 tabs of ecstasy, two Rottweilers and a plethora of sweets -- candy bars, brownies and cookies -- all laced with marijuana and packaged for commercial sale. The raids were the first in the Bay Area since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal law trumped state law when it comes to medicinal marijuana. In 1996 California voters passed Proposition 215 legalizing pot for people who have a legitimate medical need. But two weeks ago the country's top court said marijuana use was illegal -- plain and simple.
San Francisco U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan would not say whether Wednesday's raids were the beginning of a crackdown on California marijuana clubs. But Javier Pena, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's special agent in charge of the San Francisco office, made it clear that agents felt empowered by the recent court decision.
'We're empathetic to the sick,' Pena said after a news conference held at the U.S. attorney's office to announce the indictment. 'But we can't disregard the federal law. The Supreme Court reiterates that we have the power to enforce the federal drug laws -- even if they are not popular. We're going to continue to do that.'
Ryan emphasized that the indictment, which was returned a week ago but remained sealed until Thursday, had nothing to do with the court's ruling and was the result of a two-year investigation that agents dubbed 'Operation Urban Harvest.'
But attorneys representing the defendants in the case accused prosecutors of trumping up charges to make the pot club seizures more palatable to a city that embraces medicinal marijuana.
The criminal complaint alleges that Vince Ming Wan -- who is not among the 19 who were indicted -- is one of the leaders of a large-scale drug trafficking organization, which grew, imported, distributed and sold large quantities of marijuana and ecstasy and engaged in money laundering by using its ill-gotten gains to further promote its illegal enterprise. A warrant has been issued for Ming Wan's arrest.
Defendants are also accused of trafficking large amounts of money out of the country, according to Kenneth Hines, an assistant special agent in charge of the Internal Revenue Service's Oakland office.
Ryan said the investigation had moved to other counties, and he expects more arrests in the future.
Thirteen of the 19 defendants appeared in federal court Thursday morning. Nine pleaded not guilty to the charges, and four -- including 61-year-old Iris Lai Hung Tam, of San Bruno -- asked for continuances. Tam said she needed a Mandarin Chinese interpreter for the proceeding. Brian Heng Lun Ly, 26, Roselia Puga Mendoza, 24, and Edwin Gordon Toy, 29, all of San Francisco, wanted time to hire private attorneys.
Outside the courtroom, attorney Ean Vizzi, who is representing San Francisco defendants Enrique Chan, 26, Richard Wong, 28, and Chi Duc Hac, 24, scoffed at the charges.
'They are trying to make it a more offensive crime to the people of San Francisco to cover the fact that they're attacking something the people of California overwhelmingly wanted,' Vizzi said about medical marijuana clubs.
'This is the first salvo in the war against states' rights,' he continued.
Omar Figueroa, who is representing two of the defendants, said that he, too, thought there were little to the charges.
'The government is basically saying that paying their rent is money laundering,' he said. 'My clients appear to be running legitimate marijuana clubs.'
The other defendants named in the indictment are: San Franciscans Bartholomew J. Alexis, 29, Sergio Alvarez, 29, Asa Lee Barnla, 25, Jay Chen, 29, Darrick Curtiss Hom, 26, Genario Valentine Lopez, 23, Phung Van Nguyen, 27, Edward Wook Sung Park, 28, Phat Van Vuong, 30; Minho Thomas Cho, 25, of Santa Clara; Faisal Mansoor Aly Gowani, 32, of San Jose, and David Lee, 24, of Pacifica.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said Wednesday's federal raids did not blunt City Hall's strong support for medical pot and efforts to carry out Prop. 215 to allow patients access to marijuana.
Newsom said, 'We want to make sure medical marijuana clubs are operating as they should, and appropriately, that people are not abusing their right and privilege to dispense medical marijuana.''