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3 sentenced in marijuana importation scheme

ICE and other federal, local agencies work together to complete investigation

SAVANNAH, Ga. - Three Georgians were sentenced today for their roles in a marijuana importation scheme investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other federal and local law enforcement agencies.

Garry Clifford Chupurdy, 58, of Thunderbolt, Ga., Qing Hong Xiang, 33, of Savannah, and Aaron Lee Browne, 36, of Savannah, were sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Savannah, Ga., for offenses committed and charged in both the Southern District of Georgia and the District of South Carolina.

Appearing before U.S. District Judge B. Avant Edenfield, Chupurdy was sentenced to 220 months imprisonment for his involvement in four offenses related to a conspiracy to import and distribute in excess of 1,000 kilograms of marijuana. On Oct.1, 2007, Chupurdy pleaded guilty to the following offenses: Importation of Marijuana in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 952(a); Conspiracy to Import Marijuana (1,000 kilograms or more) in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 963; Conspiracy to Possess with Intent to Distribute and to Distribute Marijuana (1,000 kilograms or more) in violation of 21 U.S.C.§ 846; and Conspiracy to Conduct Financial Transactions with Proceeds of Specified Unlawful Activity (Money Laundering Conspiracy) in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(h). Chupurdy also was ordered to forfeit numerous assets used to facilitate the unlawful scheme, including a 78 foot sailing vessel known as the "Cat's Meow," which was used to transport marijuana from Jamaica to the United States. The vessel was formerly berthed in Thunderbolt before being seized by government agents on June 25, 2007.

Chupurdy has been in custody since his arrest on June 25, 2007. Xiang, Chupurdy's former fiancee, pleaded guilty on Oct. 30, 2007 to the following offenses: Possession with Intent to Distribute 50 Kilograms or More of Marijuana, in violation of 21 U.S.C.§ 841(a)(1); Conspiracy to Import 1,000 Kilograms of More of Marijuana in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 963; and Conspiracy to Conduct Financial Transactions with Proceeds of Specified Unlawful Activity (Money Laundering Conspiracy) in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(h). She was sentenced to 78 months imprisonment.

Browne, who pleaded guilty on Nov. 13, 2007 to Interstate and Foreign Travel or Transportation in Aid of Racketeering Enterprises in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1952(a)(3) was sentenced to 52 months imprisonment.

The evidence presented during each of the hearings held in the case showed that the "Cat's Meow" was used in May 2006 to import approximately 1,500 pounds of marijuana into the United States. An additional 2,000 pounds of marijuana was obtained during a second voyage which ended on June 5, 2007. The evidence also showed that the marijuana would be loaded onto the Cat's Meow as it sat off the coast of Jamaica. On the return voyage, the marijuana was packaged into air tight, vacuum-sealed, plastic bags and deposited into shallow coastal waters in the Atlantic Ocean off the Georgia coast. Chupurdy would later recover the marijuana using a smaller motor boat and scuba gear. The smuggled marijuana was stored in a Savannah warehouse for later distribution in bulk quantities to U.S. customers.

Authorities recovered several hundred kilograms of marijuana and nearly 100 kilograms of hashish oil during the execution of search warrants in Savannah and Thunderbolt on June 25, 2007.

Edmund A. Booth, Jr., United States Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, noted that the unlawful activities charged and committed during the conspiracy occurred primarily in Chatham County, Ga., and Beaufort County, S.C.

Booth acknowledged the assistance and cooperation of the United States Attorney's Office for the District of South Carolina, which agreed to transfer its portion of the cases against the defendants for disposition in the Southern District of Georgia.

Booth praised the joint investigation which led to entry of the guilty pleas. The investigation was initiated by the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office based on information provided by a confidential informant. Thereafter, the investigation was continued by the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office along with the ICE in Savannah, GA and Charleston, SC, the Coast Guard Investigative Service, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Chatham-Savannah Counter-Narcotics Team, Savannah Chatham Metropolitan Police Department Dive Team, the Thunderbolt Police Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Customs and Border Protection in Savannah, GA, Customs and Border Protection, Jacksonville Air and Marine Operations Branch, based in Jacksonville, FL and the U.S. Coast Guard.

The United States was represented by Assistant United States Attorney Karl Knoche.