85 arrested in Fla. wiretap investigation of international drug smuggling ring

"Operation Flying Ice" led to the seizure of over $12.8 million in drugs, including 268 pounds of methamphetamine and 31 pounds of cocaine


By Madeleine List
The Charlotte Observer

ORLANDO, Fla. — A two-year undercover drug investigation led to the arrests of 85 people, including six leaders of a drug-smuggling ring, according to a Florida sheriff’s office.

“Operation Flying Ice,” which involved agencies in Florida, California and Tennessee, led to the seizure of over $12.8 million in drugs, including 268 pounds of methamphetamine and 31 pounds of cocaine, according to an Aug. 19 news release from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

The investigation started in September 2020 with the seizure of 1 pound of methamphetamine in Winter Haven, about 50 miles southwest of Orlando, Florida, according to the sheriff’s office.

“From that point forward detectives continued to make undercover narcotics purchases from dealers in the Winter Haven area, and learned that large amounts of methamphetamine were being smuggled from California to Florida in checked luggage on domestic flights,” the news release said.

Detectives began a wiretap investigation in February and started to intercept the communications of suspects involved with the trafficking ring.

Detectives served 14 search warrants in Auburndale, Davenport, Polk City, Lake Wales, Winter Haven, and Riverview, Florida, as well as in Fresno, California,” the news release said.

As a result of the investigation, the sheriff’s office arrested 85 people and issued warrants for three more, according to the news release.

Of the 85, six “ringleaders” were arrested, including one 32-year-old man who is accused of killing a person when he crashed into a gas station in Marathon, Florida, about 100 miles south of Miami, according to the release.

In addition, authorities seized about 180 pounds of cannabis, 3.4 pounds of MDMA, 68 Xanax pills, 173 Oxycodone pills, 49 firearms, three “non-active” grenades, two bulletproof vests, one stolen motorcycle and $235,000 in cash.

“These folks have been in trouble before,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said during a recorded news conference posted on the sheriff’s Facebook page. “These folks didn’t roll out of Sunday school and decide they’d create a little mischief this week. ... These are hardcore people, for the most part.”

Many of the drugs were seized from suitcases, which were often checked onto flights without passengers accompanying them, Judd said during the news conference, as he stood in front of bags full of illicit drugs.

Some smugglers would buy “ghost tickets,” meaning they would get a ticket for travel, check their bags, and never get on the flight, Judd said.

Other flights had “very experienced” and “very talented” smugglers on board that would get off the planes and “spread out” to avoid detection, he said.

Judd said many of the smugglers were brazen about how they packed the narcotics in their suitcases, which in most cases flew through the Los Angeles International Airport before arriving in Orlando.

“On one airline, six suitcases with this drug were smuggled into Orlando,” Judd said, standing beside dozens of plastic bags full of white powder. “They didn’t so much as throw a pair of underwear in the suitcase to act like they were hiding the drugs.”

The drugs that were seized included 6.8 ounces of fentanyl, an amount worth more than $26,000 on the street, according to the sheriff’s news release. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, stronger than morphine, that can be deadly, especially when mixed with street drugs.

“Two milligrams of fentanyl can be a deadly overdose,” Judd said .

Judd said at least two drug overdoses occurred during the course of the two-year investigation, including the death of a family member of one of the ringleaders.

Judd encouraged airline passengers to be grateful for the security measures they go through at the airport.

“When I hear people grumble and complain about having to go through scanners and TSA,” he said , “... I think, ‘Are you all our of your minds? We’re keeping you safe. We’re protecting your life.”

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©2022 The Charlotte Observer. Visit charlotteobserver.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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