Feds bust national drug ring, thanks to a PlayStation box

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — A clue gleaned from a Sony PlayStation box led federal investigators to one of the largest fentanyl seizures in U.S. history and a cross-country drug conspiracy.

Federal court records and prosecutors detail innovative shoe-leather detective work that led to the seizure and describe a drug ring accused of helping fuel the nation’s opioid epidemic. The investigation involves a series of fatal mistakes and an oddball cast, including a pediatrician, a horse groomer, a barber and a fugitive drug mule with a long lucky streak.

Gaming consoles, such as the Sony PlayStation 4, provide a platform for streaming televsion as well as access to video games. (Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Recent arrests and drug seizures in Maryland and Indiana deepen what federal prosecutors call a sprawling drug conspiracy involving at least seven people and a Mexican cartel. The conspiracy continued after federal agents found 88 pounds of heroin and more than 10 kilograms of fentanyl last summer in a Novi condominium, a seizure that led to the recent arrest of what prosecutors called the drug kingpin in Baltimore who was found with a secret stuffed in a couch.

“There is a staggering amount of narcotics that have been seized,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Hutting said in one of a series of detention hearings related to the case. “It shows, given the amount, that this is a sophisticated organization, and they are a connected organization.”

The investigation dates to March 2017, when U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents seized 600 grams of heroin following a drug deal in the parking lot of a Walmart Supercenter between Grand River Avenue and Interstate 96 in Novi.

A reporter holds up an example of the amount of fentanyl that can be deadly after a news conference about deaths from fentanyl exposure, at DEA Headquarters in Arlington, Va.

Agents were monitoring the drug deal thanks to a court-approved wiretap on the drug buyer. The buyer was arrested after leaving the Walmart and, during the arrest, agents found the heroin packaged inside an otherwise empty Sony PlayStation box.

The box still contained the gaming system's serial number, so investigators subpoenaed Sony for details about the PlayStation's purchase. 

Agents learned that someone paid cash for the PlayStation at the same Walmart nine days before the heroin seizure. 

Walmart let agents review security video footage. They discovered the PlayStation buyer was a black man, 20-30 years old, who drove a silver sport-utility vehicle.

The Sony subpoena also revealed that a man named "James Clover" of Rialto, California, had activated the gaming system. Agents could not, however, find anyone with that name.

Three real credit cards, however, were linked to the Sony PlayStation and used to activate the gaming system, according to investigators.

The credit cards were linked to two names.

One name was fake, investigators believe.

A second credit card traced back to a partial name. Someone named "Manjaro."

The Sony subpoena would fill in the gaps.

The Sony PlayStation, like many devices, lets people play games online through a distinct Internet Protocol address, or IP address.

The Sony subpoena showed the PlayStation was utilizing an IP address owned by Internet service provider Bright House.

So DEA agents subpoenaed Bright House to determine which account was linked to the IP address.

The account was registered to Matthew Maccage, another bogus name.

But Bright House told agents the PlayStation was connected to the Internet at a condominium on Joyce Lane in Novi, about three miles north of the Walmart.

After questioning the person who bought heroin outside the Walmart and reviewing wiretapped phone calls, DEA agents learned the heroin dealer had arrived at the drug deal in an Uber cab.

So agents subpoenaed the ride-sharing company.

Uber records showed an account linked to Andre Lee Scott, 25, a barber from San Bernardino, California, was used for a pick-up at the Walmart at the time of the drug deal, according to federal court records.

After being picked up at the Walmart, Uber dropped off the customer at the same Novi condo where the PlayStation was connected to the Internet.

On July 10, agents executed a search warrant at the $1,200-a-month, two-bedroom condo at the Brownstones complex near 13 Mile and Novi roads. Inside was an epic haul and an eclectic group.

Andre Lee Scott

Agents found 88 pounds of heroin with a street value of $4 million, $515,710 shrink-wrapped in plastic and the Sony PlayStation.

The drug stash included more than 10 kilograms of pure fentanyl, said Hutting, the federal prosecutor. Fentanyl is an opioid drug that is as much as 50 times more potent than heroin.

"A staggering amount of narcotics," she said.

The raid netted the third-largest seizure of pure fentanyl in DEA history, outranked by the 11 kilos found near Seattle last year and 18 kilos near St. Louis, also last year. 

Agents also found Scott and two other men in the condo:

• Manuel Arnulfo Barajas, a 21-year-old horse groomer at Los Alamitos Race Course near Los Angeles.

• Adolfo Verdugo Lopez, a 51-year-old pediatrician from the Sinaloa drug cartel’s home turf in Mexico.

Agents using a serial number from a Sony PlayStation box to identify and find the target of a drug investigation is a novel twist, said Nathan Wessler, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

“In some ways, this is creative shoe-leather police work but it also raises important questions about making sure there is the right kind of judicial oversight,” Wessler said. “This is illustrative of how much of our lives are susceptible to a search by law enforcement.”

Federal agents seized 88 pounds of heroin last year at a condo complex in Novi and arrested Adolfo Verdugo Lopez, left, and Andre Lee Scott, 25, right. The drugs’ path into the Metro area is unclear.

After searching the Novi condo, agents searched Scott's rental car in the parking lot. Inside, agents found one kilo of cocaine hidden under the front passenger seat.

The cocaine was bound in Saran wrap. Agents tested the Saran wrap and found six fingerprints that belonged to James "Bug" McGlory, 32, a trucking company employee from Los Angeles, according to court records.

McGlory is "one of the leaders of a large drug-trafficking organization," Hutting said.

Several members of the narcotics ring live in the San Bernardino area and criss-cross the country distributing drugs and money, prosecutors say.

The drug ring has operations in Maryland, Florida, Indianapolis and Dallas.

Investigators believe Scott, the barber, took turns with other members overseeing operations at the Novi condo, Hutting said.

A search of Scott's cell phone showed frequent contacts with McGlory's phone, including text messages referencing drug ledgers and drug distribution, according to court records.

Location data showed McGlory's phone pinged off a cell tower near the Novi condo on July 8, two days before the DEA raid, the prosecutor said.

James "Bug" McGlory

Agents checked flight records for Scott and learned he was listed as the contact for a California woman named Joyce Haynes, 59. She flew from Detroit to Los Angeles on July 10 — leaving about the same time agents raided the Novi condo, according to court records.

Prosecutors portray Haynes as a veteran drug courier with ties to McGlory.

Flight records showed Haynes and McGlory flying from Los Angeles to Baltimore in March 2017. The next month, McGlory paid for them to fly from Los Angeles to Detroit, according to court records.

Haynes switched her mode of travel in August 2017 — one month after the Novi raid.

That month, Haynes was arrested at a Greyhound bus station in Indianapolis. Investigators found three kilograms of cocaine in her backpack, according to prosecutors.

"She did admit to being a drug courier who had never been caught," Hutting said.

Agents seized her phone and learned one of her most frequent contacts was McGlory.

"Following Haynes' arrest, activity on (the) McGlory drug phone ceased," DEA Special Agent Michael Reamer wrote in a court filing.

Haynes, the accused drug courier, was about to catch a lucky break.

Indianapolis police inadvertently released her, triggering a nine-month hunt by the U.S. Marshals Service.

"She has been on the lam for almost a full year," Hutting said.

While federal agents hunted for Haynes, they identified the mysterious person named "Manjaro" whose credit card was linked to the Sony PlayStation purchased at the Walmart in Novi.

Around the time the PlayStation was purchased, investigators found text messages on Scott's cellphone describing account and password information for the gaming device. The texts were exchanged with a phone prosecutors said belonged to California resident Manjaro Johnson, 30, a self-described disc jockey and aspiring rapper.

Agents compared images of the unknown black male shown on Walmart security camera footage buying the PlayStation with photos of Johnson, the prosecutor said.

"I will say that there is a strong resemblance when you look at the photograph of the person who purchased the Sony PlayStation and Mr. Johnson," Hutting said.

Location data for Johnson's phone showed the device pinged off a cell tower near the Novi condo, and the Walmart at the time of the PlayStation purchase, the prosecutor added.

"We think that this defendant, Manjaro Johnson, was the one that purchased the PlayStation that started this investigation," Hutting said. "Andre Scott and . . . Manjaro Johnson essentially took turns spending time at the Novi condominium and overseeing the drug trafficking organization's operations out of that condominium."

Prosecutors have no evidence linking Johnson to the Novi condo or drugs, defense lawyer Vincent Toussaint said.

"You don't have anything in terms of any fingerprints, nothing that would tie Mr. Johnson to narcotics that were found at any location," Toussaint said. "There's no surveillance of Mr. Johnson at that location. There's nothing there."

The drug trafficking did not stop after the raid at the Novi condo and fentanyl seizure in July 2017.

Six months after the Novi raid, in January, Johnson was stopped at Los Angeles International Airport after arriving from Dallas.

Officers approached Johnson and received permission to search his luggage. Investigators seized $34,515 cash and asked Johnson about the money.

"First, he said 'I earned that DJing. I was saving to buy a car and I didn't leave it in a bank because I don't trust banks,'" Hutting said.

There is no proof Johnson is a DJ and he reported no consistent employment, the prosecutor said.

"So that is inexplicable how he would be in possession of $34,000 in cash unless it is reasonably drug proceeds," Hutting said.

Later, Johnson said some of the money belonged to the woman he flew with to Los Angeles, the prosecutor added.

"That individual is also significant," Hutting said.

Prosecutors believe the woman is Donna McGlory, the younger sister of accused drug kingpin James McGlory. She denied knowing anything about the cash, Hutting said.

James McGlory became a focus of the investigation after DEA agents found his fingerprints on the kilo of cocaine in the car outside of the Novi condo, according to court records.

Agents started analyzing James McGlory's history of flights around the country.

In early April, investigators learned McGlory and Johnson were flying to Maryland.

Agents set up undercover surveillance and spotted the men at a Comfort Inn in Towson, Maryland. Johnson arrived April 11; McGlory a day later, according to court records.

On April 13, agents spotted McGlory and another man outside a Baltimore apartment building. The other man dumped a trash bag, which investigators later searched, finding a label addressed to an apartment within the building, heat-sealed bags and rubber gloves consistent with the type used for narcotics trafficking, according to court records.

 Agents obtained a warrant to search the apartment later that day.

Inside the apartment on English Oak Road, agents found an upholstered couch.

Agents cracked open the couch. Taped underneath, agents found the majority of a drug stash that included 15 kilos of heroin, three kilos of cocaine, marijuana and $250,000.

"So if somebody were to just appear that they were moving a couch, they wouldn't have been detected but they would have been moving a significant amount of drugs and money," Hutting said.

There is no concrete connection between McGlory and drugs seized by investigators, his defense lawyer Kevin Bessant said.

“By no means whatsoever is Mr. McGlory a major drug player in this,” Bessant said.

In May, one month after the Baltimore bust, accused drug mule Joyce Haynes' luck ran out. She was arrested in California following a nine-month search. She is expected to be brought to Detroit soon to face charges.

The group was indicted May 10 on several charges, including conspiracy to distribute controlled substances. The felony is punishable by up to life in prison.

A trial is set for Sept. 11.


Twitter: @robertsnellnews