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Prison sentences for seven defendants
A chance encounter during a routine patrol by a La Salle County-based officer of the US Drug Enforcement Administration sparked a decade-long investigation that uncovered a narcotics trading empire worth millions across several states, including smoke shops in South Texas.
Retired sheriff’s deputy Joseph Canales has been honored with the Superior Performance Award from US Attorney for the Southern District of Texas Alamdar Hamdani in Houston for his key role in breaking open one of the region’s biggest drug trafficking operations.
While working as a deputy for then-Sheriff Victor Villarreal in La Salle County in 2012 and assigned to the Laredo DEA Task Force, Canales observed an interaction between two South Texas residents suspected of involvement in transporting narcotics in horse trailers. Using search warrants and examining the suspects’ trailers that had been equipped with hidden aftermarket compartments, Canales and other officers began an investigation that led them to California, Arizona and Utah.
At the heart of the drug trafficking organization, reports indicated, were smoke shops in Laredo and other cities across the US where synthetic cannabinoids were being sold illegally, netting the enterprise millions in profits.
The central player in the organization was identified as Daniel Bowles of Cave Creek, Arizona, who has been sentenced to 16 years in federal prison, fined $40,000 and is subject to a $5 million judgement.
Also sentenced in the case is Bowles’ ex-wife, Ratchanee McCauley, of Phoenix, Ariz., a native of Thailand, ordered to serve more than eight years in federal prison and subject to a $2 million judgement for her part as owner and manager of a warehouse through which the narcotics were trafficked. McCauley will be deported to Thailand after serving her sentence.
Bowles’ cousin, Don Jessop of Salt Lake City, Utah, has been sentenced to serve 66 months, fined $10,000 and ordered a half-million dollar judgement for his role as call taker and salesman who forwarded narcotics orders for distribution.
A seven-year prison sentence and a judgement of $100,000 have been handed down for Ernesto Salazar of Mesa, Ariz., for his part in the manufacture of the synthetic cannabinoids and for serving as money courier for the trafficking organization.
Thirawat Athikulrat of Downey, Calif., was sentenced to serve 63 months in prison and subject to a million-dollar judgement for serving as warehouse manager and narcotics manufacturer.
Chanuphit Srithongrung, also from Downey and Athikulrat’s spouse, has been sentenced to four years in prison and a judgement of half a million dollars for likewise managing the traffickers’ warehouse and manufacturing the narcotics.
Frank Gonzalez of Mesa was sentenced to serve 28 months in prison and a judgement of $117,984 for serving as call taker and salesman for the narcotics enterprise.
Charges against the defendants included continuing a criminal enterprise; conspiracy to defraud the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act; conspiracy to commit mail fraud; conspiracy to manufacture, deliver or process with intent to distribute a controlled substance; money laundering conspiracy, spending and concealment; and the actual manufacture and distribution of the controlled substance.
Canales and officers from Webb and Zapata counties observed activities in and around the Sizzle Smoke, Cleo’s Smoke, Kuan Kong and Titty Twister shops and were able to make undercover purchases and deliveries to the businesses that helped identify Bowles’ wide-reaching criminal enterprise, according to reports on the investigation.
The case was underway for a number of years while investigators untangled the ordering, distribution, shipping practices, financing and concealment of the enterprise, and in one incident were given a heads-up to the nature and volume of the narcotics being sold when a business neighbor to one of the smoke shops received a parcel containing 5,000 pre-printed plastic bags used to market the cannabinoids.
According to Canales, filling all of the plastic bags and selling them at $10 apiece would have generated $50,000 for the shop owner.
Canales reported that effects of the synthetic marijuana-like material had caused a number of suspected consumers to become ill during 2013. The incidents – identified as 15 male patients aged 13 to 40 served by emergency medics over a month and a half near one of the smoke shops in Zapata County – further helped investigators to track the transport and sale of the narcotics. Search warrants executed at two smoke shops resulted in seizure of two pounds of synthetic cannabinoids, digital scales, tobacco shredders, ledgers, and other paraphernalia associated with the drug trafficking enterprise as well as a quantity of US currency.
A further link in the chain of narcotics trafficking was revealed when then-Deputy Leo Martinez in La Salle County stopped a vehicle in 2014 and discovered a shipment of synthetic cannabinoids. The owner admitted to using the Sizzle Smoke Shop as his supplier for the narcotics.
Investigators already knew that the supplier to Sizzle Smoke was Daniel Bowles, Canales said.
The investigation, ‘Operation Brain Freeze,’ was named after a brand label on the narcotics that were being peddled by Sizzle Smoke and other shops supplied by Bowles.
Ten assault weapons and approximately 50 lbs. of synthetic cannabinoid were seized after search warrants were executed in 2015 at two smoke shops, at a residence and at two storage units.
According to Canales, who investigated drug trafficking at the Titty Twister smoke shop, the business owner was a former Sizzle Smoke employee and was being supplied by Bowles with Brain Freeze-brand synthetic cannabinoid. Search warrants executed by Canales at two more shops and two other residences resulted in seizure of 88 lbs. of synthetic cannabinoid, five firearms and $35,000 in currency.
Canales worked undercover in tracking the narcotics transport, arranged purchases of synthetic cannabinoid and helped reveal the key players at the enterprise’s sites in California, Utah, and Arizona.
Investigation into the traffickers’ finances followed a trail through Utah, California, Arizona, Texas and Alaska, and revealed that Bowles’ enterprise also supplied smoke shops in Virginia, Ohio, Maryland and Oklahoma as well as the shops already identified in Texas.
“Authorities tracked payments from multiple smoke shops throughout the United States and identified several bank accounts involved in the scheme,” Canales said this week. “Financial records from 2012 through 2019 showed that Bowles received over $15.4 million in illicit proceeds.”
Assistant US Attorney Graciela Rodriguez, prosecuting the case against Bowles and others, noted that the significance of the prosecution was evident in the complexity of the charges against seven defendants and showed the breadth of the investigation, the volume of financial and business records that had been analyzed, and “the tenacity of the investigative teams’ efforts.”