ICE arrests airline employees for involvement in international drug smuggling

DETROIT - Federal agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) arrested 12 individuals today for their role in two drug smuggling operations out of U.S. airports. All of the individuals have been charged with drug trafficking and related charges to include conspiracy, possession with intent to distribute and illegal importation of narcotics.

"Today's arrests and charges close a major vulnerability at the airport," said ICE Director John Morton. "We can't have people working in and around aircraft exploiting their positions for criminal ends. Airplanes are for lawful travel not drug dealing. For those on the inside thinking about abusing their access to planes for money, think again. We are watching. We are looking. Whether it takes months or years, whether the trail leads to Detroit, Houston, or Montego Bay, we will investigate you, we will prosecute you, we will put you in jail."

The investigation called, "Operation Excess Baggage," began in January 2010 when HSI special agents from the ICE's attaché office in Kingston, Jamaica, contacted Detroit-based HSI special agents to alert them of a seizure by Jamaican Customs of approximately 53 pounds of marijuana. The seizure was discovered in a suitcase on Northwest Airlines (now Delta) flight # 2321 which was bound for Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW) from Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

The suitcase was tagged with a Northwest Airlines baggage tag, bearing the name of an uninvolved passenger. Agents suspected that additional baggage containing narcotics might still be on the aircraft destined for Detroit.

HSI special agents in Detroit immediately notified U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at DTW. HSI agents, along with CBP officers, seized an additional five suitcases containing nearly 16 kilograms of cocaine and close to 130 kilograms of marijuana. Preliminary investigative findings suggested internal involvement of employees of Delta/Northwest.

During a March 18, 2010 surveillance operation, agents seized an additional 45 pounds of marijuana from two Delta/Northwest employees at DTW. It is alleged that these individuals were participants in a separate smuggling operation between Houston and Detroit. A separate Houston-based investigation was then launched.

Earlier this month, 12 sealed complaints for individuals known to have been participants in these narcotics smuggling conspiracies were issued by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Ten were issued for current or former Delta/Northwest employees stationed at DTW or at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) in Houston, Texas. Two additional warrants were issued for individuals involved in the scheme who were not airline employees.

The Jamaican/Detroit trafficking operation suspects have been charged with importation of controlled substances and possession of controlled substances with intent to distribute and conspiracy:

Glenford Stephens, 48;
Kevin Jernigan, 50;
Cordell Coke, 37;
Huram Josephs, 41;
Rex Lee, 27; and
Christopher Bradley, 38.

The Houston/Detroit trafficking operation are being charged with possession of controlled substances with intent to distribute and conspiracy:

Clifford Skinner, 38;
Kelvin Atwater, 40;
LaDale Callaway, 39; and
Yohanis Watson, 37.

Two additional suspects, who are not airline employees, have been charged with distribution and conspiracy for their connection to the Houston/Detroit smuggling operation:

Floyd Adams, 42; and
Cher Denton, 38.

HSI Agents arrested all of the suspects Thursday morning.

If convicted of the charges, the penalties are driven by the drug amounts. Penalties involving the shipment of cocaine and marijuana range from 10 years to life in prison and a fine of up to $10,000,000 for cocaine, along with five years to 40 years in prison for marijuana.

In the case of the marijuana shipment from Houston to Detroit, the penalty for less than 50 kilograms of marijuana is up to 5 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.