'All the parts come into play': Yearslong, multiagency investigations net results in Calif.

Operation Dark Nodes led to 27 arrests and the destruction of a portion of a "transnational" drug trade


By Ishani Desai
The Bakersfield Californian

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — A drive-by shooting at MLK Park. Mexican Mafia drug distributors in Bakersfield. The murders of a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old.

This information was gathered from separate, sprawling monthslong investigations by the Bakersfield Police Department in conjunction with federal law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. The breadth often results in arrests of multiple people, each connected to established gangs inflicting violence and pumping Bakersfield with drugs.

One such investigation by the BPD, Homeland Security, FBI and several other law enforcement agencies known as Operation Dark Nodes was unveiled last week. The nearly two-year investigation led to 27 arrests Thursday in Bakersfield and the destruction of a portion of a "transnational" drug trade, according to Tatum King, a special agent in charge with Homeland Security Investigations.

These sweeping investigations often start with a citizen tip or even a simple traffic stop. But it can lead to a multiyear effort to topple criminal enterprises.

"We had a really big case down south that (started from just) dumb luck," said Chris Parlier, who is retired from the now-defunct California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement and who serves as the Bakersfield City Council member representing Ward 7.

Operation Dark Nodes

Parlier said he and his colleagues were filtering through tips on a slower day when one caught their eye.

That tip led them to uncovering a "giant meth lab," he said. Parlier spoke generally about large-scale investigations he was a part of involving multiple agencies from his time as a law enforcement officer.

A similar chance encounter arose in Operation Dark Nodes, which led to insight about a transnational drug smuggling organization and charging a "high-ranking Mexican Mafia gang member who oversees criminal activities in Kern County," according to a federal criminal complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California.

BPD officers stopped a vehicle on Buck Owens Boulevard in July 2020 and ultimately found 5 pounds of crystal methamphetamine. The driver confessed he got the narcotics from Luis Mauricio Castenon, also known as "Damage," according to the complaint filing charges against Castenon.

Castenon is connected to a drug-smuggling organization rooted in Mexico and often "receives a large amount of methamphetamine daily from individuals who are referred to as 'border brothers,'" the complaint said. He is a suspected Mexican Mafia gang member, according to authorities.

The driver, known as a cooperating defendant, was sent by law enforcement to buy more meth from Castenon, the complaint said.

Two other people, known as confidential sources, also negotiated buying meth from another person named Bryan Steven Reyes, who said he must "get the sale approved by the 'big homie.'" The "big homie" is suspected to be Castenon, the complaint stated.

Reyes told informants someone else would furnish narcotics, and they all met up on Eye Street, the complaint said. Castenon came to this location carrying a bag, went inside a residence and Reyes followed him with money from the informants. Reyes returned with Castenon's bag and gave it to the informants, the complaint said.

Money from this sale would go to the "big homie," Reyes indicated to the informants, according to the complaint.

The criminal complaint said this information led them to charge Castenon with the distribution of controlled substances. He could face a maximum of up to life in prison, a fine of up to $10 million and supervised release of at least five years up to life, the complaint said.

Another instance detailed in a criminal complaint that was a result of Operation Dark Nodes describes the arrest of Rosa Fernandez, a Mexican Mafia narcotics trafficker and distributor operating in Bakersfield; William Arthur Poush, a member of the East Side Bakers criminal street gang; and Timothy Robert Hingston, a suspected Nazi sympathizer and white supremacist who supplies drugs.

Fernandez, known as "Madrina" in the Mexican Mafia, and Poush were observed selling drugs on multiple occasions to confidential informants working with authorities in Bakersfield, according to the complaint. Text messages and wiretapped phone calls are what investigators pointed to as proof of narcotics possession and its distribution, according to the complaint.

Hingston gave Poush fentanyl and meth, according to the complaint. However, before Poush could sell the drugs, he was arrested by BPD officers and found with 9.25 kilograms of suspected crystal meth, 600 grams of suspected fentanyl, around 14 grams of cocaine, about 22 grams of suspected psilocybin or mushrooms and a .32-caliber pistol, the complaint stated.

Text messages in the complaint show Hingston writing to Poush that he has to pay "cartel people."

"I don't (expletive) around with cartel people and tell them I'm not gonna (expletive) pay," Hingston texted Poush. "That is suicidal!!"

How it works

Taking down big players in a criminal enterprise begins with information collected from a variety of sources, said Gregg Bender, a retired BPD detective who served for 32 years.

"It kind of starts (with someone) who doesn't want to go to prison," Bender said.

Bender, who was not involved in Operation Dark Nodes, has participated in multiple multiagency investigations and detailed how such an investigation might unfold.

A patrol officer could pick up someone in a traffic stop and glean information. And then another person is arrested in a similar fashion who divulges more related details. San Diego- or Los Angeles-based officers know about drug traffickers from Mexico and share their knowledge with local agencies, Bender said.

"All the parts come into play and you start learning more and more," Bender said. "You decide whether or not this is a worthy investigation."

The main players in these criminal networks are known by police, but it's a question of getting into the organization, Bender said.

Collaborating with different agencies allows for pooling strategies, information and resources, he said. A city police officer could go to a county deputy sheriff to understand how a suspect operates in their jurisdiction. One investigator can tell another to refrain from arresting a suspect because there is something bigger in play, Bender noted.

"It just takes a long time to do," Bender said. "A lot of paperwork."

Parlier added a larger agency can provide surveillance mechanisms such as a drone or a plane.

Once evidence gets collected on primary suspects, authorities may seek to make mass arrests, Parlier added. This move could be warranted if the investigation has grown to a large size that could lead to mistakes, or undercover agents' true identities could be unmasked, he said.

Conducting mass arrests — which happened in Bakersfield last week — allows law enforcement to have the element of surprise, said Steve Urner, a retired Kern County sheriff's deputy who worked in the organization for 20 years and is now a private investigator.

"That is the key thing here," Urner said.

He's witnessed the execution of search warrants at times when the targets are least likely to expect them, such as early in the morning.

Dismantling an organization comes from preserving documents, phone records, and unexplained income or assets. Serving several search warrants simultaneously lowers the chance of this evidence being destroyed, Bender said. It also reduces the chance of people fleeing.

'I have to live like this'

One of Bakersfield's most horrific crimes — the murder of a 3-year-old boy and the shooting of his family — wrapped up this year after two men were sentenced. Arresting and prosecuting these men happened after police got information from a sprawling investigation named Operation Blind Mice.

That operation, which was announced in 2017, led to the arrests of 40 people involved in gang activity, and information was gathered about killers Tyrone Johnson and David Palms. Such coordinated efforts — including Operation Dark Nodes — aim to prevent horrific instances that upend residents lives, said BPD Sgt. Robert Pair, spokesman for the department.

"These are individuals that prey on our community and harm other individuals and community members to earn money through illegal means," added Pair, who was instrumental in investigating Operation Blind Mice.

Johnson and Palms pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter and other charges while their murder charges were dismissed in a plea deal over the death of Major Sutton, 3, the shooting of his pregnant mother, Johniece Williams, and her son King Smith, 5. Johnson was sentenced to 42 years and 8 months in prison, while Palms received 27 years last month.

For Williams, the sentences weren't long enough for the violence both men unleashed upon her family. She lambasted loose penalties and sought for criminals to serve a full sentence.

"I will never comprehend (it)," said Williams, 34. "I still want to know why — how can someone do something like this? I still don't understand."

She recalled the November 2017 incident in a phone interview Saturday. Williams, King and Major were lying in bed, preparing to go to sleep. Her then-5-year-old son, King, was on YouTube.

Major kissed her on the cheek and said, "I love you, Mom."

Then gunfire shattered a silence as bullets pierced the room. Williams attempted to protect her children as bullets ripped through her body. King was hit with a bullet in his wrist, while Major got hit in the chest, she said. The five-year anniversary of Major's death is Friday.

Williams lives in constant pain with bullets in her body. Doctors deemed it too dangerous to remove the metal, she said.

"I have one that's an inch away from my main artery," Williams said. Another one hit her nerves.

King has shrapnel in his hands after doctors removed some of the bullet.

Both of them suffer when they're alone and can no longer perform activities that once took no thought, she said.

Williams always seeks to remember Major's memory, while raising King and her daughter, who was born after the shooting.

King and Major shared an inseparable bond as brothers two years apart, Williams said.

Major was a goofy child, she remembers. He liked to sing and dance — almost like "an old soul," Williams fondly remembered.

She never saw him mad and, in every picture, Major flashes his bright smile, she said. Everyone loved him at school, and the custodians would tell Williams how much Major loved to help.

"He just brightened up everybody's day, no matter what," Williams said. "He'll make you laugh for sure."

"It's like (Johnson and Palms) got away with something — still," Williams added. "I can't see my son again. I have to live like this."

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