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Detroit —  Federal agents have captured a fugitive exotic dancer following an 11-year search stretching from Detroit to Mexico that solves a mystery surrounding the most lucrative drug case in Michigan history.

The capture of Annette Sanchez and a second fugitive serves as an intriguing postscript to an international drug investigation that involved more than 30 people, 66,000 pounds of marijuana, $178 million in drug proceeds and former NBA player Robert “Tractor” Traylor.

Her long flight from justice, fading memories and lack of incentive for alleged co-conspirators — many of whom have completed prison sentences — to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office pose challenges for prosecutors, legal experts said.

Sanchez, 35, allegedly doubled as a courier hauling millions of dollars from Metro Detroit to marijuana suppliers in Arizona. She was caught Nov. 27 after crossing the Mexican border into Douglas, Arizona, a surprise given her success dodging federal agents and notoriety from being profiled on a 2007 episode of “America’s Most Wanted” devoted to “Bad Girls.”

“That is an interesting twist,” said Capt. Keith Frye of the Troy Police Department, which was involved in the drug investigation.

She is being held without bond and is due in federal court early next month.

Sanchez was the champagne-sipping, pole-dancing girlfriend of Giovanni Ruanova, an alleged upper echelon member of the drug ring who is accused of helping oversee delivery of marijuana from Arizona to Detroit. The couple disappeared in 2005 but Sanchez’s capture has raised the possibility she might lead investigators to the missing man, assuming he is alive.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and her lawyer will not discuss her capture, so much of Sanchez’s flight from justice remains unknown.

Sanchez’s capture came quietly. The U.S. Marshals Service, which hunts fugitives, did not announce her arrest. Neither did the DEA, which as recently as last week listed Sanchez on its fugitive website.

“We appreciate the perseverance of the U.S. Marshals Service as they continue their pursuit of fugitives, no matter how long they have been in hiding,” DEA Special Agent Rich Isaacson told The Detroit News.

Sanchez has been missing so long, the U.S. Attorney in Detroit in 2005, Stephen Murphy, is now a federal judge. Sanchez has been missing so long, drug kingpin Quasand Lewis of West Bloomfield, is nearing the end of an 18-year federal prison sentence.

Lewis, 46, is at a Florida prison and scheduled to be released in March 2019.

A 16-month investigation started with a March 2004 raid at a Novi hotel that turned up more than $3.4 million in cash and coded drug ledgers. A search at a nearby home in Northville uncovered $1.4 million in drug proceeds.

The investigation focused on Lewis and a drug ring that imported marijuana and cocaine from Arizona. The investigation included raids at dozens of locations across Metro Detroit where his drug ring stored guns, cash and drugs.

In May 2004, she was returning to Arizona after picking up drug proceeds with her boyfriend, according to court records. Oklahoma Highway Patrol investigators searched the car and found $1,768,069 stuffed in duffel bags.

Sanchez was indicted July 18, 2005, alongside almost two dozen other people. Eventually, 32 people would be charged.

She was charged with money-laundering conspiracy — a 20-year felony.

In all, federal agents seized $18 million worth of assets during the investigation, including a limousine, Corvettes and jewelry.

The case against Lewis entangled the drug kingpin’s cousin, former University of Michigan and NBA basketball player Robert “Tractor” Traylor.

Lewis hid more than $178 million in drug proceeds, and Traylor admitted he recorded in his name two rental properties that were owned by Lewis.

Sanchez is the second fugitive involved in the case to return to Detroit in recent months.

In July, alleged drug dealer Israel “Shorty” Corral made an initial appearance in federal court after being extradited from Mexico where he was working as a car salesman, according to court testimony.

He was captured in Los Reyes, Mexico, two years ago during an operation involving Interpol, according to published reports.

Corral is accused of obtaining marijuana from Arizona suppliers and coordinating drug shipments to Detroit. The quantities ranged from 150 pounds to several thousand pounds, according to court records.

If convicted, Corral faces up to 20 years in federal prison.

Aside from the three fugitives, prosecutors secured convictions against 28 people.

“This is was one of the most solid cases you will ever find,” Novi Police Chief David Molloy said. “Not one of them went to trial.”

Sanchez might not stand trial, either.

“The further down the road you go, the real challenge is memories have faded and the leverage the government has over cooperating witnesses has largely dissipated,” said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. “No criminal case ages well, unlike French wine.”

Sanchez, a fringe player in the drug case, likely will be offered a plea deal, Henning said.

“I don’t think the government has a real strong appetite to have this case go to trial,” he said. “Their message is ‘you’re not going to escape justice,’ but the pressure of being able to win a case after this many years is difficult. There is incentive on each side to come to some resolution. At some point, being charged with a crime does weigh on you.”

The criminal case against most members of the drug ring ended with 11 law enforcement agencies splitting more than $3.7 million seized during the investigation.

Novi Police spent its share — more than $1.6 million — building a state-of-the-art firearms training center.

“We built that in 2008,” Molloy said.

By then, Sanchez had been missing for three years. Law enforcement officials circulated photos of her as a fresh-faced 20-something, wearing a revealing outfit and holding a champagne glass.

The photos contrast with a recent mugshot that hints at a stressful end to 11 years on the run.

“I can’t even imagine,” Molloy said.

rsnell@detnews.com

(313) 222-2486

Twitter: @robertsnellnews

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