BILLINGS — Thirteen defendants were convicted on methamphetamine, firearm and money laundering charges, involving an estimated $300,000 worth of methamphetamine in Montana.
These convictions were announced Thursday by U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter, District of Montana.
This investigation involved the cooperation of many law enforcement agencies in Montana and California, including the FBI and the FBI’s Big Sky Safe Streets Task Force, and the Eastern Montana HIDTA, which includes representation from the Billings Police Department, Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), U.S. Customs and Border Protections’ Border Patrol, DEA and IRS. Both task forces collaborated with law enforcement partners at the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation, U.S. Marshals Services, Montana National Guard, U.S. Postal Service, FBI offices in California, California Highway Patrol, as well as the Billings and FBI SWAT teams.
Operation Pale Mule joined numerous law enforcement agencies in Montana and California. The operation investigated a conspiracy to distribute about 10 pounds of methamphetamine in Montana, much of which was orchestrated by defendant Jason Neel, 31, from inside a California prison while serving a sentence for second-degree murder. Neel was sentenced to 50 years in prison by U.S. District Court Judge Susan P. Watters. The final defendant, Mario Albert Villegas, 32, of Los Angeles, California, was sentenced Aug. 6 to 30 years in prison and 10 years of supervised release. Villegas distributed a total of six pounds of meth.
“This operation put an end to an organization that was delivering dangerous drugs straight into our Montana communities,” said Cotter. “Methamphetamine has a devastating ripple effect – it ruins lives, families and communities. I am proud of the hard work and long hours the members of this operation invested in these cases. Our state is a safer place as a result.”
The investigation joined more than 70 law enforcement officers working across eastern Montana and in California, and involved nearly 60 warrants to obtain information about the drug trafficking conspiracy. The conspiracy was responsible for bringing roughly five kilograms of meth into Montana, valued at about $300,000. Law enforcement also uncovered a funnel bank account, where drug distributors deposited their proceeds at a Montana bank and another defendant in California took the money out to pay the drug sources. Law enforcement was able to determine that $42,000 was laundered through one bank account, with an additional $5,000 through other money transfers. Law enforcement also seized $6,639 and a 2007 BMW vehicle, which were linked to the drug trafficking crimes.
All members of the drug trafficking organization have either pleaded guilty or been convicted of federal charges ranging from conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribute meth, possession with intent to distribute meth, distribution of meth, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Investigation of the drug trafficking organization began in September 2013, when law enforcement agents with the FBI and Eastern Montana High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force (HIDTA) began investigating a drug trafficking organization responsible for shipping methamphetamine from Southern California to Billings and Roundup, Montana. Agents introduced an undercover agent into the organization, and the undercover agent purchased methamphetamine from one of the leaders of the organization, Casey Fleming, as well as local distributors. Agents soon learned that Fleming was working with Jason Robert Neel an inmate at California State Prison (Corcoran Unit) who was serving a sentence of 44 years to life for second-degree murder. Neel was able to have a prison employee smuggle cell phones into the prison so that he could effectively run the organization.
As part of the investigation, law enforcement agents were granted a Title III wiretap for two cell phones used by Casey Fleming as well as Neel’s prison cell phone and Neel’s girlfriend, Desiree Jimenez. Wiretaps are granted through a rigorous legal process and allow law enforcement to listen to telephone communications for a specified duration. Agents learned that Fleming was first obtaining methamphetamine from Mario Villegas, a resident of Los Angeles, and later from David Delcarmen, also a residence of the Los Angeles area. Fleming utilized a network of subordinates to ship the methamphetamine from California to Montana. Local dealers in Montana then distributed the methamphetamine in Eastern Montana once it arrived.
During the wiretap investigation, agents were able to determine that the packages of meth were being shipped to residences in Roundup and Billings, Montana, and they intercepted those packages. All of the methamphetamine seized in this investigation was highly pure, ranging from purity levels of 90 to 100 percent pure methamphetamine. In total, agents estimate that the organization transported five kilograms of methamphetamine from Southern California to Montana during the course of the conspiracy.
A Montana grand jury ultimately indicted 13 defendants responsible for the drug trafficking organization. Twelve of the defendants pleaded guilty; Mario Villegas was convicted following a jury trial.
This case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Joe Thaggard, Tara Elliott, Brendan McCarthy and John Sullivan.