Federal officials announced a crackdown Wednesday on an alleged Los Angeles-based drug trafficking ring that they said distributed methamphetamine and other narcotics to thousands of customers in at least 35 states and numerous countries around the world via hidden darknet websites.
Prosecutors said the organization used online names such as "Stealthgod" to sell meth and MDMA -- known as ecstasy or molly -- on multiple darknet marketplaces. Investigators alleged the crew has been linked to more than 18,000 illicit drug sales to buyers throughout the globe.
An alleged meth trafficker who was a key supplier to the organization is being sought after being charged last week in Los Angeles federal court.
Earlier this year, five other alleged members of the narcotics ring were arrested on federal charges, and authorities made substantial seizures of narcotics and cryptocurrency during the probe, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
"These online black market websites use a variety of technologies, including the Tor network and other encryption technologies, to ensure that communications and transactions are shielded from interception and monitoring," according to court documents filed last week in Los Angeles. "A famous dark web marketplace, Wall Street Market, operated similar to legitimate commercial websites such as Amazon and eBay, but offered illicit goods and services in exchange for virtual currencies, such as bitcoin."
During an operation earlier this year, members of Los Angeles Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement -- JCODE -- executed search warrants that led to the seizure of more than 60 parcels containing narcotics that were ready to be shipped across the country, prosecutors said.
Andres Bermudez of Palmdale, 37, who allegedly was the key supplier of meth to the crew, is currently a fugitive being sought by federal authorities, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
During takedowns in Los Angeles in February, members of JCODE arrested five defendants allegedly at the center of the "Stealthgod" organization and seized about 120 pounds of meth, seven kilograms of ecstasy, and five firearms.
The five defendants arrested on federal charges are:
-- Teresa McGrath, 34, of Sunland-Tujunga, who allegedly delivered dozens of narcotics-laden packages to a post office in Sunland;
-- Rane Melkom, 35, of Sunland-Tujunga, who shared a residence with McGrath where authorities allegedly seized more than 50 pounds of meth, nearly 15 pounds of ecstasy, about 30,000 Adderall pills, cash, and three loaded handguns;
-- Mark Chavez, 41, of downtown Los Angeles, whose bedroom allegedly yielded nearly 40 pounds of methamphetamine and two handguns during a search in February;
-- Matthew Ick, 51, of downtown Los Angeles, who is linked in court papers to a narcotics shipment to the organization; and
-- Thomas Olayvar, 43, of downtown Los Angeles, who allegedly was involved in the shipment of narcotics through the United States Postal Service.
McGrath has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and MDMA, possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking, and cryptocurrency money laundering, admitting that over the course of about six months she received $161,916 in bitcoin and helped disburse this money to her co-conspirators, prosecutors said.
Chavez has pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute meth and ecstasy, as well as possessing a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking.
McGrath and Chavez are scheduled to be sentenced next year, when each will face up to 15 years in federal prison.
Melkom, Ick, and Olayvar face various narcotics charges and are scheduled to go on trial next year in downtown Los Angeles.
In addition to the Stealthgod cases, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles have filed cases against other alleged darknet narcotics traffickers and those who help them convert bitcoin into gold or similar currencies.
-- Kais Mohammad, 36, of Yorba Linda, is scheduled to plead guilty Thursday to federal charges stemming from the operation of 17 bitcoin kiosks across Southern California. In his plea agreement, Mohammad admitted that he knew that at least one of his clients was engaged in illicit activity on the dark web.
Earlier this year, three people linked to the online moniker "Aeirla" were sentenced to federal prison for conspiring to distribute meth and cocaine to customers who negotiated transactions on the darkweb.
Those defendants are:
-- Anh Pham, 49, of Hawaiian Gardens, who was sentenced to 80 months in federal prison;
-- Joseph Michael Gifford, 43, of La Crescenta, who was sentenced to three years' imprisonment; and
-- Carlos Miguel Gallardo, 60, of Hawaiian Gardens, who was sentenced to serve 18 months in federal prison.
Pham sold pound quantities of meth on the darknet, while Gifford and Gallardo packaged them in toys -- a beach ball, and boxes of Christmas cards and chocolates -- and shipped them to customers nationwide.
Five defendants are scheduled to be tried in October 2021 in Los Angeles on various narcotics trafficking charges that allege they used the monikers "Drugpharmacist" and "RickandMortyShop" to sell cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and crack cocaine on Wall Street Market and another darknet marketplace called Dream.
Members of the conspiracy allegedly shipped narcotics in small vials concealed inside stuffed animals. The defendants scheduled to go on trial are: Jerrell Eugene Anderson, 30, of Inglewood; Christopher Canion Van Holton, 33, of Valencia; Adan Sepulveda, 28, of Lancaster; Kenneth Lashawn Hadley, 33, of Lancaster; and Jackie Walter Burns, 22, of Lancaster.
Anderson and Sepulveda face a charge of distribution of heroin resulting in death in relation to a shipment of heroin to a customer in Knoxville, Tennessee, who suffered a fatal overdose.
Kunal Kalra, 26, of Westwood, was sentenced in March to 18 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to federal narcotics and anti-money laundering charges related to his unlicensed money transmitting business that he used to exchange virtual currency for cash for darknet vendors. Prosecutors said this was the first federal case in the nation charging an unlicensed money remitting business that used a bitcoin kiosk.
A father and his son who distributed meth on the darknet using monikers such "Quartersandup" and "Colsandersdream" were sentenced to federal prison last year. William Glarner III, 65, of Huntington Beach, was convicted at trial and sentenced to 15 years. His son, William Glarner IV, 35, of Irvine, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years.
Tyler Reeves, a 30-year-old Irvine man who sold narcotics on the nowdefunct Wall Street Market darknet site, was sentenced last year to 10 years in federal prison.
"Through the outstanding efforts of the JCODE Task Force, we have been able to unmask those hiding on the darknet, bringing to justice a wide array of criminals, including those operating online marketplaces, laundering cryptocurrency, and spreading drugs around the world," U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said. "My prosecutors and their JCODE partners will continue to rein in illegal dark web activities by disrupting other traffickers and those who help them access their illicit cryptocurrency."