Detroit — A pediatrician, a horse groomer and a barber walked into a Novi drug den last month, triggering the second-largest heroin seizure in Metro Detroit history and a $4.5 million mystery federal agents are still unraveling one month later.
Federal agents are tracing the oddball backgrounds of the three men and their possible ties to a Mexican drug cartel after finding $500,000 and 88 pounds of heroin in the Novi condominium. The heroin was packaged in bricks of a brown powdery substance and DEA agents fear the drugs were laced with fentanyl, a powerful pain medication fueling the nation’s opioid epidemic that is so toxic a drop small enough to fit on the tip of a pen is considered fatal.
Interviews and federal court records indicate the July 10 bust disrupted a heroin pipeline stretching from Mexico to Metro Detroit and involved a cast of characters who made repeated trips to the area in recent months.
“Oh, there is more to the picture than meets the eye,” said defense lawyer Elias Escobedo, who represents Adolfo Verdugo Lopez, the 51-year-old pediatrician who hails from the Sinaloa drug cartel’s home turf in Mexico.
Lopez is charged alongside Manuel Arnulfo Barajas, a 21-year-old horse groomer at Los Alamitos Race Course near Los Angeles, and Andre Lee Scott, 25, a barber from San Bernardino, Calif.
The international drug mystery emerged at a $1,200-month, two-bedroom condominium at the Brownstones complex near 13 Mile and Novi roads.
The apartment was rented by a ghost. Brownstones staff never met the renter, who leased the condominium via the internet and always paid with money orders, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Hutting said.
“The condominium is located in a subdivision community, providing a buffer from law enforcement detection, as it poses inherent difficulty in conducting surveillance,” Hutting wrote in a court filing. “The strategic location and nature of the rental of the condominium is indicative of a sophisticated drug trafficking organization.”
The roots of the investigation and the drugs’ path to Detroit are unclear but federal agents were tracking Scott in the days leading up to the bust.
Scott led agents right to the Novi drug den.
On July 5, five days before the bust, DEA agents were tracking Scott’s cellphone. GPS coordinates showed Scott repeatedly visiting the condo, according to court records.
The condo was sparsely furnished when agents raided the rental at 9:30 a.m. July 10. There were two blow-up mattresses in the bedrooms, a sectional couch in the living room, a dining room table, a flat-screen television, a heat-sealing machine and a digital scale for weighing drugs, according to federal authorities.
Scott, the barber, and Lopez, the pediatrician, were near the kitchen when agents burst through the door. Barajas was leaving the bathroom.
Agents found more than 24 pounds of heroin near the men on the dining room table.
Investigators found more than 61 pounds of heroin in the two bedroom closets, plus $515,710 shrink-wrapped in plastic.
Hutting, the prosecutor, showed a picture of the money during a recent court hearing. One veteran U.S. Attorney’s Office employee, who has sat through thousands of court hearings involving terrorists, corrupt public officials and killers, spied a picture of the cash and shook her head in disbelief.
Outside the condo, agents found more than two pounds of heroin in Scott’s rental car.
In all, agents seized 88 pounds of heroin with a street value of $4 million.
“That is really, quite frankly, a staggering amount of narcotics,” Hutting said.
The LA connection
The Novi drug bust happened six years after the largest heroin seizure in Metro Detroit history. In 2011, investigators seized 152 pounds of heroin and 22 pounds of cocaine at a home in Pontiac.
During the Novi bust last month, investigators found a second rental car outside the condo. The rental belonged to Barajas, the horse groomer. Agents also found airline tickets indicating Lopez had flown from Sinaloa, Mexico, to Los Angeles, prosecutors claimed.
In LA, Lopez met up with Barajas. The duo took a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Detroit and arrived the morning of the bust, Hutting said.
They stopped at an area Walmart and Barajas bought a disposable “burner” phone — an untraceable tool of the drug trade, the government alleged.
The pediatrician and horse groomer arrived at the condo less than three hours before the bust.
They were scheduled to return to Los Angeles that night.
Despite his age, Barajas is a trusted veteran of the drug trade, the prosecutor said.
“Novices are not going to be involved in this amount of narcotics or this amount of currency,” Hutting said. “Someone who is overseeing this type of seizure that was made is someone who is well-established with a drug trafficking organization and likely has direct ties to a cartel.”
Back in California, Barajas occasionally lived at Los Alamitos Race Course, where he oversaw and cared for race horses. On April 8, three months before the bust, his brown filly “Sweet N Kool” was the first horse in the fifth race at Los Alamitos, according to the track’s racing form.
The horse, however, was a last-minute scratch.
“Manuel has a passion for horses ... his goal one day is to become a horse owner and horse trainer,” sister Marina Barajas wrote in a letter last month in hopes of convincing a magistrate judge to release him on bond.
Barajas has a suspicious pattern of traveling to Mexico and lied to investigators, Hutting said.
After the bust, agents asked Barajas how many times he had traveled to Mexico.
Twice, he said.
Border patrol records showed otherwise.
Barajas has traveled to Mexico six times since 2013, Hutting said.
“As it relates to Barajas’ role in the offense, the government has reason to believe Barajas is related to the Mexican source of supply and that Barajas travels to Detroit to oversee large-scale drug transactions, as he did on this occasion when he was caught and arrested,” the prosecutor wrote in a court filing.
Ties to cartel
During last month’s arrest, investigators found a card in Barajas’ possession.
The card depicted Jesus Malverde, a folk hero considered the patron saint of drug traffickers, Hutting said.
Barajas is a hard-working U.S. citizen with no criminal record who traveled once a year to Mexico for family reunions, defense lawyer Michael Severo said.
Barajas had minimal involvement in the events leading up to the July 10 drug raid, he said.
The lawyer portrayed Barajas as a translator and escort who merely drove Lopez, the pediatrician, to the Novi condo.
“Can you tell me why your client was in Novi?” U.S. Magistrate Judge Mona Majzoub asked the lawyer during a recent court hearing.
“Lopez is from Sinaloa,” he said. “I’m going to allow those facts to hang there.”
The Sinaloa cartel has an established presence in Metro Detroit.
From 2008-12, a branch of the Sinaloa cartel was importing up to 660 pounds of cocaine into Metro Detroit every month, federal prosecutors said.
The cartel used an unlikely tool to avoid detection in Metro Detroit: Leo Earl Sharp, an 87-year-old drug mule from Michigan City, Ind.
Sharp made seven trips to Detroit and was paid about $1.25 million.
Sharp was sentenced to three years in federal prison in 2014 for trying to haul 228 pounds of cocaine into Detroit.
‘He’s so scared’
In January, The Detroit News revealed how the Sinaloa cartel bought a luxury airplane from a southeast Michigan company to haul drugs and senior drug ring members, only to have the aircraft intercepted by federal agents before the pilot flew to Mexico.
Lopez is from Sinaloa, but that does not mean he is a drug dealer, his lawyer said.
“There’s a whole community there,” Escobedo said in an interview. “It doesn’t mean the whole damn community is selling heroin.
“He’s so scared,” Escobedo added, “he doesn’t know if he’s going or coming.”
Lopez has been to Detroit several times for medical conferences and training, his lawyer said.
Lopez told investigators he was supposed to be paid $5,000 to fly to Detroit and photograph the heroin, Hutting said.
Scott, the barber, also has been to Detroit previously, Hutting said. Airline records show Scott has flown to Detroit at least four other times since September.
Scott also has paid to fly at least five people to Detroit since December “in furtherance of his (drug trafficking organization’s) heroin distribution activities,” according to court records.
“(Scott) is not someone who is just starting out in the business of drug trafficking,” Hutting said during a bond hearing last month. “This is indicative of someone who has long been involved, is higher up in the chain and is fully entrenched in drug trafficking.”
Scott, dressed in a red Wayne County jail uniform, shook his head as the prosecutor spoke.
Hutting said the heroin belonged to Scott.
Scott is a high school graduate with a clean record, an entrepreneur who is active in his community, defense lawyer Gerald Evelyn said.
“There is nothing to suggest he is a drug trafficker,” Evelyn said. “He is caught up in a situation.”
Scott grew up near Los Angeles and is a budding fashion executive, besides a barber. He launched the fashion line Aymhiigh Clothing Co. with a friend in 2010.
“Andre always puts other people’s needs before his own and (is) always a call away,” Aymhiigh co-CEO Willie Walker Jr. wrote in a letter to the court. “Andre is a very honorable, humble and mature young man.”
On July 27, lawyers for the barber and the horse groomer unsuccessfully fought to get them freed from jail pending trial.
Prosecutors said the men were dangerous and flight risks, considering the amount of heroin seized and possible 24-year prison sentences upon conviction.
Lopez did not fight for bond and is in jail awaiting trial Oct. 3 in federal court.
Scott and Barajas are safer in prison, the prosecutor argued.
“A drug organization has lost more than 30 kilograms of heroin and more than half a million dollars,” Hutting argued. “Scott and Barajas will likely be responsible for the debt. Their own safety is also of concern, as is the safety of those around them.”