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2 charged in ICE-led Fresno opium smuggling probe

FRESNO, Calif. - A man and a woman, both originally from Laos, are in custody following their arrest yesterday on state drug charges arising from a month-long, multi-agency probe into an opium smuggling scheme that led to the seizure of more than $50,000 worth of the narcotic.

The seizure and arrests resulted from an investigation led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that also involved U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Fresno Police Department and the Fresno County Sheriff's Department.

The two suspects, Mee Lee, 52, of Fresno, Calif., and Houa Thoa, 46, of Clovis, Calif., are charged with possession of opium for sale and conspiracy to distribute opium. The defendants are expected to be arraigned in Fresno County Superior Court later this week.

Investigators say the probe began when CBP officers at San Francisco International Airport intercepted three boxes shipped from Laos that contained more than six pounds of opium.  The narcotic was wrapped in plastic and concealed beneath piles of dead leaves.  The parcels were labeled for delivery to Lee's residence in Fresno and Thoa's home in nearby Clovis.

After making controlled deliveries, ICE agents and local detectives executed federal search warrants at Lee's and Thoa's homes, where they recovered all of the smuggled opium along with an additional quantity of the narcotic.  Both defendants were taken into custody at the Fresno residence. 

"This is one of the largest opium shipments intercepted in the Fresno area in recent times," said Daniel Lane, assistant special agent in charge for the ICE Office of Investigations that oversees the agency's Fresno operations. "As a result of our joint efforts, we have prevented a significant quantity of this dangerous narcotic from reaching the streets of our community."

"This is an excellent example of the effectiveness four agencies can have collectively to make a significant dent in the opium trade here in Fresno," said Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer.  "We know the war on drugs will never be won, but must be continually fought and this is a big step towards that."

Investigators believe the smuggled opium was intended for distribution throughout the San Joaquin Valley.  The highly addictive narcotic can be injected, smoked and even eaten, producing a high similar to that of heroin