Sampson agents commended for role in thwarting massive drug operation

By: By Chris Berendt -

It all started in 2009 with a citizen tip about possible drug activity in Sampson County. That launched an investigation that ultimately took down the leader of a trafficking operation responsible for distributing billions of dollars worth of drugs between four different states. Still ongoing, the probe has resulted in a commendation for Sampson’s drug agents.

The Sampson County Sheriff’s Office Special Investigations Division (SID) was recognized by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, which encompasses 44 counties, and awarded the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) 2017 Case of the Year for its work on the investigation deemed “Operation Old El Paso.”

“This is huge. It is a really great recognition and it speaks well of our drug unit and this county,” Sampson County Sheriff Jimmy Thornton stated. “Anytime a small rural county like ours is given a distinction like this, it speaks volumes.”

From traffic stops to controlled purchases, surveillance (including federal wiretaps), arrests, reports and affidavits, not to mention the hundreds upon hundreds of manhours that came with it, Sampson’s SID agents — nine individuals in total, who remain anonymous in the Independent’s reporting due to the nature of their job — were praised for the large part they played in the multi-agency investigation spanning the past eight years.

The Sheriff’s Office worked on the case in conjunction with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and agents with various other state and local agencies in Georgia, Texas and Florida, as well as the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

The investigation targeted the Acosta drug trafficking organization and ultimately confirmed that the operation was transporting and distributing “extremely large quantities” of cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana, with cash proceeds sent back to Mexico. In all, the investigation resulted in the seizure of approximately 680 kilograms (1,500 pounds) of cocaine, 2,300 pounds of marijuana, vehicles and cash, while identifying multiple bank accounts where structured deposits were made in an attempt to conceal drug money.

It began in 2009 with a tip about Martin Acosta. The tipster said Acosta lived in a singlewide trailer on Harvest Lane, Clinton, and was a distributor of kilos of cocaine, which he would transport in commercial vehicles from Atlanta, Ga., to Sampson County.

“It all started off with a call-in tip we received and they’ve been dealing with it this entire period,” said Thornton. “It all began in this county and everything led to something else.”

The DEA didn’t adopt the case at first, but Sampson agents pursued it and, in 2011, developed an informant who was able to assist in furthering the investigation. From then, SID began working with agents from the DEA office in Wilmington. In 2012, wiretaps were initiated and the roles of certain individuals in the drug operation came into focus. Communication between agencies here and in other states continued and resulted in various drug seizures, each chipping further away at the Acosta drug ring.

Several defendants received significant federal sentences, including Martin Acosta, who was identified as a leader in the organization. He was held responsible for more than 50,000 kilos (110,231 pounds) at his sentencing in May 2017. At a $34,000 price per kilo, that street value came to $1.7 billion for the cocaine alone.

U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle sentenced Acosta to 420 months in prison (35 years) and five years of supervised release for conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine, 500 grams or more of methamphetamine, and 100 kilograms or more of marijuana, as well as conspiracy to launder monetary instruments.

Co-defendant Noe Barreiro, from McAllen, Texas, was sentenced to 84 months in prison (seven years) for conspiracy to launder monetary instruments. Martin Acosta’s brother, Manual Acosta, also identified as being a key part of the operation, is currently a fugitive.

Investigators determined that the organization would hide narcotics in shipments of fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, and would ship the narcotics from Mexico into Texas, and then to various locations in the United States.

Within the eastern district of North Carolina, the drug trafficking organization primarily distributed cocaine and marijuana in Sampson County, while also distributing narcotics, including methamphetamine and cocaine, from Texas to Illinois and from Florida to Georgia, authorities said.

Members of the trafficking organization reportedly concealed the proceeds of the criminal enterprise through multiple cash deposits. Drug proceeds were deposited into multiple bank accounts controlled by the defendants at various banks along the East Coast, from North Carolina to Georgia. Members then made withdrawals of cash in Texas or sent international transfers of money to Mexico.

The group was responsible for laundering more than $11 million in drug trafficking proceeds and at least $8 million in wire transfers to Mexico. Millions more were moved in bulk cash transfers concealed in trucks, investigators said. Acosta drugs were found as far south as Miami, as far east as Chicago and as far north as Washington, D.C.

And it all started from a tip in Sampson County.

“That’s why phone calls are so important,” Sheriff’s Lt. Marcus Smith said. “Citizens of this county are very aggressive and proactive in dealing with drug activity.”

And it takes time to deal with those complaints, Thornton noted, but every tip is followed up.

“They deserve a big amount of praise and thanks for what they do for this county,” the sheriff said of the SID agents. “They work nonstop. Whatever comes up, they come out and deal with it.”

Sheriff’s officials also noted the “growth and maturity” of SID over the years, which has meant more confidence instilled in the unit, both locally and among other agencies. The county’s drug unit was mired in controversy some 15 years ago but was cleaned up, and has thrived since, sheriff’s officials said. Capt. Eric Pope said partnerships between the county and federal agencies are now commonplace, speaking well for Sampson’s status.

“There is a level of trust there,” Pope said. While details can not be given on some of the cases, the captain noted that “our folks have been steadily involved in multiple OCDETF cases.”

And the rewards for Sampson County will likely not be limited to bringing individuals to justice and recognizing the drug unit that played a pivotal role in that. It will most definitely include a fair share of seized asset forfeiture monies, which go back into this county and its local law enforcement.

“We will be getting assets,” said Thornton, who conceded he is unable at this time to give a ballpark figure. “It should be a fairly substantial amount.”

Role in thwarting massive drug operation brings commendation

By Chris Berendt

Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.

Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.