April Fool's Day this year turned out to be a bad day for alleged drug dealer Rafael Vasquez, though he wouldn't realize how bad until last week, when the feds took him away in handcuffs.
Vasquez, 37, learned that the man introduced to him as a potential client last spring was actually a federal undercover agent. Vasquez would go on to sell him tens of thousands of dollars worth of crystal meth, prosecutors charge.
The sales were part of a drug-dealing triangle connecting South Jersey, Ohio, and Mexico that had moved thousands of pounds of marijuana, methamphetamine, and an occasional weapon into South Jersey since at least 2008, officials said as they announced the arrest of 28 suspects yesterday.
Sixteen defendants live in Hammonton, N.J., the self-proclaimed "Blueberry Capital of the World." But the drugs were sold throughout South Jersey, said Camden County Prosecutor Warren W. Faulk.
The marijuana arrived two to four times a week in 20- and 30-pound packages at post offices throughout South Jersey. It was grown in Mexico and mailed to this area from the Texas border town of McAllen. The crystal meth traveled by car from Ohio in a four-to-six-pound package once every seven days.
"This was a consistent, organized operation," said Faulk. Cracking it took the efforts of the FBI, IRS, state and local police, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Twenty of the defendants face state charges in New Jersey, and eight face federal charges. Of those eight, six are in the country illegally, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin T. Smith. A federal public defender representing some of those charged did not return a call seeking comment.
Two of the key figures facing federal charges are Hammonton residents.
Because of its blueberry farms, the town of about 13,000 sees a yearly influx of thousands of migrant farm workers from Mexico and other nations.
"I think Hammonton was a point where they established their residence" after arriving to work in agriculture, Hammonton Police Chief Frank Ingemi said in an interview from his office in the town roughly midway between Camden and Atlantic City.
"The surprise point to us was the crystal meth, because that is not a narcotic that at this point of time is a well-used drug in this area," Ingemi said.
The case started as a marijuana investigation after postal inspectors in McAllen intercepted a 60-pound package addressed to Lindenwold.
McAllen and the larger Rio Grande Valley have long been a stopping point on the drug-smuggling corridor from Mexico to the northeastern United States, said Will Glaspy, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in McAllen.
"The majority of what we see is marijuana, with coke second and meth third," he said. "We haven't seen any change in meth, but the amount of marijuana coming across is at record levels. We're on pace to more than double last year's total."
In the last two weeks, about 25 people in the McAllen area have been arrested on federal charges of using the mail to distribute drugs, but it could not be immediately determined if any were connected to the New Jersey charges.
Smith said that because "this particular organization had the ability to go over the border" and mail drugs from McAllen, it suggested they had "associates" in that city.
Some defendants have ties to the Mexican state of Jalisco on the Pacific Coast, said state officials.
Vazquez appears to be a legal resident. His only prior arrest was for shoplifting in 1992, according to court documents, though in the current case he is also accused of allegedly selling an AK-47-style rifle and a second, fully-automatic, weapon to the undercover agent.
Another key figure, officials say, is Efrain Fregozo-Torres, 30. In 2002 he was arrested in Hammonton for selling drugs and served 23 days in jail. Two years later he was seized by border patrol agents in Arizona, and he told them he had illegally entered the United States on three previous occasions.
A 76-page affidavit outlining the charges says evidence "suggests" Fregozo-Torres is "the ultimate supplier of methamphetamine and crystallized methamphetamine" to others charged in the case. The powdered drug was brought in by two men from Columbus, Ohio, including one, Francisco Lopez Silva, 51, with a criminal record dating to California in 1981.
Silva allegedly drove a supply of crystal meth from Ohio to Hammonton just last month. Court records include the transcript of a telephone intercept during which Fregozo-Torres spells out "Hammonton" for Silva so he can program a GPS unit for driving directions.
There is confusion over whether the final vowel is an o or an a, and Torres gives up, apparently stymied by his own accent.
"Let me put my old lady on so she can give you the address better," he tells Silva.
"Yes, please," Silva responds.
Once Silva arrived on the White Horse Pike about 2 p.m. Nov. 6, he used his cell phone to call Torres for more directions.
While they were talking, Silva was pulled over by police, and after obtaining a search warrant, they found four pounds of crystal meth in a hidden compartment under the rear seat.
The sweep of suspects that ended with 28 in custody started that day.