Detroit — A pediatrician from Mexican drug lord El Chapo’s home turf says he oversaw a shipment of what became the third-largest seizure of pure fentanyl in U.S. history after being threatened at gunpoint by cartel henchmen, according to federal court records.
The records provide a backstory to an epic seizure in suburban Detroit in July 2017 and identify the accused kingpin who headed a nationwide drug ring that sold kilograms of fentanyl, heroin and cocaine since 2014. Prosecutors say the leader is a long-time fugitive who laundered profits through a rap label and used female drug couriers to haul cash and drugs to Metro Detroit and beyond.
The criminal case emerged three years ago with the seizure of more than 10 kilograms of fentanyl, more than $500,000 cash and the arrest of an oddball cast — a pediatrician, a barber and a horse groomer. The seizure — including enough fentanyl to kill 5 million people — and arrests drew widespread attention amid the global opioid crisis.
In recent months, the case has widened with a nationwide manhunt and arrests of 14 other members of an alleged drug ring disrupted after investigators found a clue on the box of a Sony PlayStation.
Several members of the drug ring are pushing to be released from custody while awaiting trial or sentencing, citing the COVID-19 global pandemic, as new details emerge about the pediatrician who says he was forced to oversee the ill-fated fentanyl shipment.
“Three heavily armed people came to my practice and threatened me with death,” pediatrician Adolfo Verdugo Lopez, 53, told U.S. District Judge Terrence Berg. “They threatened me and my family with death, that I had to come to the United States in order to do an errand, to do a favor for them.”
The Novi drug deal that would entangle Lopez was being finalized on July 3, 2017.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Lopez worked as a pediatrician at Sinaloa Pediatric Hospital in Culiacan, Sinaloa, a squat white building painted in a whimsical pink and yellow pattern.
The hospital is a seven-minute walk from the Guadalupe neighborhood that served as headquarters for El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel. El Chapo escaped from a government raid in 2014 via an elaborate tunnel hidden under his bathtub at his home a few blocks from Sinaloa Pediatric Hospital.
“Crime is so terrible in my city,” Lopez said. “Other colleagues of mine were murdered before…The same fate that other murdered doctors have endured would happen to me, and that otherwise they would kill me and — and — unless I did not wish to see my young children in the future. This was caused by the organized crime in my city.”
Still, Lopez said no.
Two days later, more visitors and guns arrived.
“Another four people came heavily armed; that unless I would go by the weekend to take some pictures, they would kill me and my family,” Lopez said.
The armed men gave Lopez $2,500 and instructions to fly to California before traveling to Detroit, he said.
Lopez told the story while preparing to plead guilty in October 2018. His claims of being forced at gunpoint to join the conspiracy troubled the judge, who halted the hearing.
“I don’t want you to admit to something that you feel in your heart you cannot admit to,” the judge said.
More than a year would pass until November. That’s when Lopez pleaded guilty to a drug crime and was sentenced to 40 months in federal prison under a deal that makes no mention of armed men or threats.
Prosecutors and Lopez agree, however, the pediatrician flew to California and met Manual Barajas, a 21-year-old horse groomer who worked at Los Alamitos Race Course near Los Angeles.
Barajas was in charge of supervising almost 30 kilograms of heroin and fentanyl being hauled to Metro Detroit.
On July 10, 2017, the men arrived on a red-eye flight in Detroit, rented a car and drove to the Novi condo where the cocaine and fentanyl were stored in cardboard boxes of Prime Selecta Mexican shrimp.
Lopez was in charge of photographing the drugs. The heroin, fentanyl, and a kilogram of cocaine found in a car, were worth $4.5 million.
“Lopez knew that the drugs he was sent to photograph would be distributed by others,” Assistant U.S. Attorneys Julie Beck and Andrea Hutting wrote in a court filing.
By the time Lopez arrived in Novi, an undercover federal investigation was underway.
On March 24, 2017, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents seized 600 grams of heroin following a drug deal in the parking lot of a Walmart Supercenter between Grand River Avenue and Interstate 96 in Novi.
Agents were monitoring the drug deal thanks to a court-approved wiretap on the drug buyer’s phone. The buyer was arrested after leaving Walmart and, during the arrest, agents found the heroin packaged inside an otherwise empty Sony PlayStation box.
The box still contained the gaming system’s serial number, so investigators subpoenaed Sony for details about the PlayStation’s purchase.
Agents learned that someone paid cash for the PlayStation at the same Walmart nine days earlier.
Using the PlayStation’s serial number, investigators obtained a subpoena to determine who had activated the gaming console and whether it had been connected to the internet.
Officials with internet service provider Bright House told agents the PlayStation was connected to the internet at a condominium three miles north of the Walmart. That’s the same condo on Joyce Lane in Novi, where Lopez and Barajas were handling the drug shipment with Andre Lee Scott, 25, a barber from San Bernardino, Calif.
Agents raided the condo on July 10, 2017. Lopez was found in the living room, several feet from the fentanyl and $515,715 heat-sealed and packaged in boxes. All three were charged, convicted and sentenced to federal prison.
Investigators say they just missed James “Bug” McGlory, 34, a trucking company employee from Los Angeles described by prosecutors as a pivotal figure in the coast-to-coast drug conspiracy. McGlory had flown to Detroit from Baltimore, and investigators would soon learn why.
McGlory traveled around the country collecting drug money from distributors while working as the right-hand man for a national drug dealer based in California, prosecutors said. The organization has hubs in Alabama, Baltimore, Jackson, and Novi, where members stored and packaged drugs and money, according to prosecutors.
During the Novi raid, investigators found text messages from McGlory referencing drugs and money, prosecutors said. And when DEA agents checked the kilogram of cocaine found in Scott’s car parked outside the Novi condo, they found McGlory’s fingerprints, according to court records.
Agents started analyzing McGlory’s history of flights around the country.
In early April 2018, investigators learned McGlory was flying to Maryland. So they followed him.
On April 13, 2018, agents spotted McGlory and another man outside a Baltimore apartment building. The other man dumped a trash bag, which investigators later searched, finding a label addressed to an apartment within the building, heat-sealed bags and rubber gloves consistent with the type used for narcotics trafficking, according to court records.
Investigators obtained a warrant to search the apartment later that day. Inside, agents found two couches, turned them over and found the majority of a drug stash that totaled more than 14 kilograms of cocaine, more than 3 kilograms of fentanyl, heroin and almost $140,000.
McGlory was arrested alongside a second man, Baltimore resident Shawn Oliver, who smiled at the federal agents.
“That’s great and all, but I have another two to three million hidden,” Oliver, 45, said, according to prosecutors.
There is no concrete connection between McGlory and drugs seized by investigators, defense lawyer Kevin Bessant previously said.
“By no means whatsoever is Mr. McGlory a major drug player in this,” Bessant said.
McGlory is being held at Milan federal prison while awaiting a June trial, and last week lost a request to leave on bond. He argued hypertension left him susceptible to COVID-19.
Oliver, meanwhile, ran the drug ring’s Baltimore hub and sold kilograms of drugs to other dealers in the city, prosecutors said. He pleaded guilty to a drug conspiracy charge in July as investigators hunted his boss.
Agents also found a clue inside the Baltimore stash house. In the kitchen, on the counter, near a kilo press, behind an ashtray shaped like an assault rifle, was a white sign reading “Money Gang Meal Clique.”
Investigators allege Money Gang Meal Clique is a rap label and promotional business linked to a California drug felon, Maurice “Loc” McCoy, 38, of Moreno Valley, Calif., east of Los Angeles.
Hutting, the prosecutor, said the rap label was used by “McCoy and other members of the conspiracy used to launder drug money.”
The rap label has a minimal online presence. Its Instagram page features photos of cash, jewelry, cash piled next to jewelry, and bottles of Champagne. The page has less than 1,300 followers while the label’s 2016 release “The Meal Ticket” has zero reviews on Amazon.com.
Investigators would spend the next 17 months investigating and hunting McCoy.
The investigation also focused on his girlfriend, Teeauna White, 32, a self-styled entrepreneur who posts on social media about luxury cars, Louis Vuitton purchases and money-making ventures, including liposuction in a bottle.
One Instagram photo features a Money Gang Meal Clique diamond chain.
In March 2018, White incorporated White Way Trucking and listed McCoy as a truck driver, prosecutors said.
“The government believes White Way Trucking was established in an attempt to appear to operate a legitimate business to account for McCoy and White’s inexplicable income,” Hutting wrote in a court filing.
Despite White’s affluent social-media image, she received a court-appointed lawyer when she was arraigned on a money laundering conspiracy charge in Detroit in June. Her lawyer Allison Kriger declined comment.
McCoy was indicted alongside his girlfriend in May 2019, but agents couldn’t find the accused kingpin.
They spent three months hunting McCoy before finding him in central California. McCoy was riding in his girlfriend’s car when federal agents tried to arrest him.
McCoy ran, prosecutors said, but investigators caught him and brought him to Detroit. He is imprisoned at the Sanilac County Jail while awaiting a June trial on conspiracy charges that could send him to prison for more than 20 years.
His lawyer, Otis Culpepper, declined comment.
White, meanwhile, is free on bond and pushing for McCoy’s release on social media.
On her Instagram page, White posted a GIF of her mowing the lawn outside her $600,000 California home.
The lawn and 4,800-square-foot house could soon belong to the government.
Prosecutors want the home forfeited upon conviction.
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