Members of a California-based drug ring have been using commercial flights to Louis Armstrong International Airport to run marijuana and other drugs into Jefferson Parish, according to a 13-count indictment recently unsealed in 24th Judicial District Court.
The indictment, which was handed up under seal in April, accuses 14 named defendants and five unnamed co-conspirators — some of them airline employees — of bringing between 10 and 32 pounds of marijuana with them on flights, including one on Southwest Airlines, since early 2014.
The indictment on drug, racketeering and money laundering charges says that members of the ring acting as drug "mules," or carriers, were at times accompanied by other members of the ring. It says they could count on the operation to bail them out of jail quickly if they were arrested and to pay for their lawyers.
The indictment accuses the group of bribing government employees or contractors and commercial airline employees as part of the operation.
The group allegedly also operated at Chicago Midway International Airport, as well as airports in Oakland, San Francisco and Sacramento, California.
While the indictment mentions heroin, cocaine and marijuana, all the arrests and charges outlined in the indictment deal with marijuana, with the exception of an arrest of one of the group's leaders.
Prosecutors say the group compromised the safety of passengers and “made those corrupted agents, subcontractors and employees susceptible to bribery or blackmail by individuals or groups that wish to engage in acts of serious violence.”
Judge Henry Sullivan of 24th Judicial District Court in Gretna unsealed the indictment at the request of prosecutors with Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick's office, who said that the investigation no longer required it to be sealed.
Those charged were: Esam Ghalid, 46, of Stockton, Calif.; King Baker, 52, of New Orleans; Sarah Abd-Elaziz, 30, of Oakland, Calif.; Michael Lewis, 28, of New Orleans; James Hawkins, 64, of Union City, Calif.; Chikezie Iwundu, 26, of Pritchard, Ala.; Kayla Johnson, 23, of Oakland, Calif.; Safiya Zina, 39, of Antioch, Calif.; Delance Vanderhorst, 28, of New Orleans; Yonston Vazquez, 24, of Oakland, Calif.; Germanie Stepter, 22, of Paulina, La.; Jiasia Steib, 21, of Vacherie, La.; Bobbie Jean Stampley, 45, of Vicksburg, Miss.; and Tommy Bardwell, 41, of Stockton, Calif.
The indictment lists 47 individual acts that it says make up the racketeering charge and 22 contributing to the charge of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. A third count charges the group with money laundering in excess of $100,000.
The indictment includes a charge of possession of heroin with intent to distribute against Ghalid, who was also known as Alandos Forrest, James Forrest and Dose.
Ghalid is described as a “cell head” of one component of the enterprise working out of Oakland and the Stockton area. It says he was caught by Alabama State Police and Homeland Security agents transporting $70,000 in cash with Baker.
Baker was charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute it, money laundering and transporting proceeds of drug sales.
Baker was arrested at Armstrong Airport in April 2017 with a suitcase containing nine pounds of marijuana. Then, in February, he was arrested with Johnson on allegations that they transported nearly 32 pounds of marijuana from California to Armstrong Airport via a Southwest flight.
Ghalid had them both bailed out on bonds totaling $40,000 before flying to California with Johnson on another Southwest flight the next day, the indictment alleges.
Earlier, in December 2016, Baker was stopped for speeding in Alabama with Ghalid and another woman as passengers. The police confiscated $70,000 in cash stowed in a suitcase that Baker claimed he had made from selling counterfeit merchandise after losing a construction job. A federal judge last month ordered Baker to forfeit the money to the government; the indictment says the money had actually been made selling marijuana.
Abd-Elaziz, Lewis, Sina, Iwundu, Baker, Johnson, Stepter, Steib and Vazquez were charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute it. Stampley, Abd-Elaziz and Lewis were charged with money laundering and transporting drug money.
Abd-Elaziz allegedly supervised the transport of drugs on domestic airlines, including 10 pounds of marijuana on June 30, 2017, and conducted surveillance on drug mules.
Lewis, a distributor, allegedly coordinated the delivery of the June marijuana delivery.
Hawkins, an employee of an unspecified airline, allegedly supplied more than 100 airline passes to the gang’s members, who would travel carrying cash or go along with mules carrying drugs.
“The use of airline passes enabled the enterprise to have multiple members travel on the same flight while using a method of acquiring the ticket … distinct from the credit card ticket purchases made for the mule, which in turn made it more difficult to identify enterprise members and the pattern of their activity,” the indictment says.
Iwundu allegedly collected luggage full of drugs left at baggage carousels, including an attempted collection of about 21 pounds of marijuana on Nov. 10. He was caught on April 10 in Sacramento with almost $15,000 in suspected drug money.
Johnson allegedly smuggled 31 pounds of marijuana on Feb 18.
Zina allegedly coordinated with Abd-Elaziz and Lewis and an unindicted co-conspirator to smuggle drugs, including 10 pounds of marijuana on June 30, and flew on multiple flights coordinated by Ghalid.
Vanderhorst, another “cell head,” operated out of Oakland and New Orleans, coordinating drug smuggling and financing and orchestrating Abd-Elaziz’s travel, the government says.
Vazquez allegedly carried 24 pounds of marijuana on March 13 and 14 and was responsible for the collection of drug money and delivering it to the leaders.
Stepter allegedly carried 24 pounds of marijuana from California to the New Orleans airport on March 13.
Steib allegedly transported 24 pounds of marijuana on March 13 from California to the New Orleans airport.
Stampley allegedly transported proceeds of almost $10,000 to Ghalid on March 20.
Tommy Bardwell, allegedly a “mid-level monitor,” is accused of providing sites for the packaging and labeling of the drugs smuggled on airlines. Prosecutors say he also paid and monitored mules.
The indictment also includes a a charge of possession of oxycodone against Stampley.
As of Monday, Lewis, Zina, Stepter and Steib remained in custody after being arrested last week. Baker is on a home incarceration monitoring program after bonding out following his prior arrests.
Zina, Stepter and Steib all had their bail set at $800,000. Lewis’ was set at $595,000.
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