SEATTLE - Five men from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, who played a role in an attempt to smuggle $300,000 of marijuana through Washington state's rugged Snoqualmie National Forest have been sentenced to federal prison, following an investigation by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Office of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
According to court documents, in April 2010, HSI agents were investigating snowshoe tracks in a remote area near the Canadian border. The tracks were along on a treacherous snowshoe trail in the Canyon Creek area of the national forest and a known drug smuggling route.
Near a secluded area where the tracks crossed into the United States from Canada, agents encountered Christopher Neary, 34, and Daryl Fontana, 37, hiding in the woods. Each man was equipped with a set of snowshoes and claimed to have gotten lost while hiking in Canada.
While agents were talking with Neary and Fontana, an SUV driven by Carl Thiessen, 28, arrived. Thiessen told the agents that he was a writer looking for a secluded place to write. A short time later, agents heard branches breaking in the woods and discovered Sinisa Gavric, 33, hiding in the brush and claiming that he had been separated from his friends.
Agents searched the area, following the snowshoe tracks about 20 feet down the side of a steep embankment. Hidden beneath the tree branches, agents recovered a backpack containing heat-sealed packages of marijuana and a set of snowshoes. A short time later, they also found three additional backpacks, two machetes and another set of snowshoes. Each backpack contained approximately 30 pounds of marijuana.
Having recovered four backpacks and four sets of snowshoes, but only encountering three men in the woods, agents suspected another individual may still be at large. Evidence discovered in the SUV lead agents to a hotel in Bellingham, Wash., where they encountered Richard Bafaro, 45.
After HSI agents completed the interviews with all of the suspects, Bafaro was identified as the person who organized the trip. Thiessen revealed that he had assisted Bafaro in two prior smuggling runs. All five men involved in the smuggling operation were arrested and charged with marijuana importation, possession and distribution.
Within a few months, Thiessen pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute marijuana and money laundering charges. The other four men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute marijuana. Neary, Fontana and Gavric were sentenced in September 2010 to eight months in prison while Thiessen received a one year prison sentence. Bafaro was sentenced in October 2010 to 30 months in prison and three years of supervised release.
At Bafaro's sentencing hearing, he apologized for his role in the scheme, but denied he had recruited his friends to participate. He said he was forced to pay Canadian drug suppliers $70,000 after he lost a load of marijuana in a smuggling attempt in February 2010.
Barfaro told how a friend of his helped in the search for the missing drugs. The friend fell and broke his leg, requiring him to spend several days in the wilderness. Suffering from kidney failure, he was eventually airlifted from the Canadian wilderness by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police rescue helicopter.
"This case illustrates how drug smugglers - motivated by greed and a false sense of invincibility - will carelessly risk their health and safety in hopes of turning a quick profit," said Leigh Winchell, special agent in charge of HSI in Seattle. "HSI will continue to aggressively investigate this type of crime to deter others from undertaking this dangerous and criminal activity."
HSI was assisted in the investigation by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Lisca Borichewski.