A major Orangeburg-based cocaine ring that imported more than 65 pounds of the drug into the Midlands this decade has been smashed by a team of federal, state and local investigators, authorities said Monday.
Members of the ring had about $1.1 million in luxury cars, cash and homes that federal prosecutors are seeking to take in forfeiture proceedings, said J.D. Rowell, the lead prosecutor.
Few weapons have been found in the 2 1/2-year investigation, which resulted in charges against 56 people, from traffickers to street dealers and drug-money launderers, Rowell said.
Monday was a day for police to bask in success they said grew from interagency cooperation that began after a May 2007 traffic stop in Orangeburg County by the Highway Patrol.
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"While it cuts the head off large operators, it also empowers neighborhoods," Orangeburg public safety chief Wendell Davis said in a joint news conference in Columbia attended by representatives of nine agencies.
Many neighborhoods feel as if they are "held hostage" to drug dealing, he said.
Much of the dealing uncovered in this case was centered in an apartment complex and a street around Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School, Rowell said. Agents found no evidence the drugs were sold to students.
Using thousands of hours of telephone conversations recorded between January 2008 and August of that year, authorities learned the cocaine was coming from Corpus Christi, Texas, with connections to Savannah, Miami and the Dominican Republic, said Chris Nielsen, a supervisor with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Of the 66 pounds (or 30 kilos) seized, the largest single amount was about 48 pounds found in Savannah, Rowell said. An estimated 25 to 30 pounds of the total was destined for Orangeburg or Richland counties.
The street value of uncut cocaine is between $18,000 and $25,000 per kilo, which is 2.2 pounds.
Some traffickers used an Orangeburg car dealership, Unique Cars, to launder their proceeds, the prosecutor said. They would buy luxury cars for cash from an indicted co-conspirator, Leon D. Dizzley, so the vehicles would not be in their names in the event of a forfeiture proceeding.
The cars included a BMW 745i and 650i, two Infinitis, a Cadillac SUV, a Jaguar and a Mercedes.
All but two of the 56 defendants have been convicted or have pleaded guilty, Rowell said. Sentencing is to begin in mid-January and take until early summer. Some of the traffickers are facing up to life in prison.
The case also sends a message to drug dealers who increasingly are moving here from the drug hub of Atlanta, several police officials said.
"If you're going to come to South Carolina to deal your drugs, it may take us some time ... but we're going to get you, and we're going to put you away for some time," Lexington County Sheriff James Metts said.
Metts and SLED director Reggie Lloyd said federal convictions carry longer sentences than charges in state courts, which often are overwhelmed by the volume of cases.
"You do see these guys over and over again," Lloyd said.
Some of the other major dealers charged include: Reginald C. Mack, Cayetano Yepez Leyva and Cirilo Camara Morales, all of Orangeburg, and Sigmund D. James of Richland County, Rowell said.
The officials said they hope the cooperation shown in this case will be repeated.
Lloyd said he expects that to continue in 2010. "We've got to step up these kinds of efforts."