HARRISBURG - A Mexican physician helped drug dealers avoid detection by replacing their fingerprints with skin from the bottoms of their feet, a federal prosecutor said Friday.
The doctor, Jose L. Covarrubias, was arrested Wednesday in Arizona as he tried to cross the U.S.-Mexico border a few hours after a grand jury in Harrisburg indicted him in connection with a marijuana-dealing ring.
The indictment says Covarrubias, 49, with addresses in Arizona and Mexico, surgically removed the fingerprints of codefendant Marc George, 42, of Jamaica.
"We heard those stories, but we didn't believe them when we heard them during the course of the investigation," Assistant U.S. Attorney William Behe said in Harrisburg. "We caught Marc George, and we all became believers."
Covarrubias is charged with conspiring to distribute more than a ton of marijuana in central Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and with being an accomplice and accessory after the fact to marijuana dealing.
George has been indicted on charges of money laundering and drug trafficking in connection with the same investigation.
The charges are related to a Harrisburg drug ring in which 34 people have been charged and 27 have pleaded guilty or are expected to plead guilty.
Federal prosecutors allege that the organization, headed by Rodney "Jamaican Mike" Hutchinson, 38, sent money by courier to Tucson, Ariz., to buy Mexican marijuana. The ring then allegedly sold it in central Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere.
Pennsylvania State Police seized $391,000 from a vehicle George was driving in May 2004, according to the indictment. The following February, police stopped George in New Jersey and seized $351,000 in cash, it said.
Covarrubias allegedly removed George's fingerprints a few months later.
"The procedure involved essentially removing the skin from the fingerprints and replacing it with the skin from the bottom of your feet," Behe said. "I've seen the grisly looking pictures."
Behe said George was stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2005 after his fingerprint operation. His hands were bandaged, and are still mangled from the procedure, Behe said.
Investigators believe Covarrubias also performed the operation for about four other people.
An expert with the Latent Print Certification Board said it would be difficult, if not impossible, to remove all the ridge detail from someone's hands.
"I assume that it could occur, but I've not heard of it occurring," said Lyla Thompson, the print board's chairwoman, who works at the Johnson County crime lab near Kansas City, Kan. "It would be a pretty extensive procedure."
Covarrubias, Hutchinson, George and five others were named in a superseding indictment issued by a grand jury in Harrisburg Wednesday.
It could not immediately be determined whether Covarrubias has a lawyer. He is scheduled to appear before a federal magistrate judge in Arizona today for a bail hearing.
Hutchinson's lawyer declined to comment Friday, and George's lawyer did not immediately return a phone message. Trial is scheduled for August.