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February 1, 2021Newport News, VA, United StatesNarcotics

Sinaloa cartel-linked fentanyl and heroin traffickers plead guilty, sentenced in Operation Cookout

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – The mastermind behind an extensive drug trafficking ring entered a guilty plea this week, and four other defendants either entered pleas or were sentenced recently to substantial terms in prison for distributing large amounts of fentanyl, heroin and cocaine in Newport News, Virginia, and North Carolina.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Washington, D.C. field office participated in the multi-agency Operation Cookout in August 2019, which involved 120 law enforcement officers from 30 law enforcement agencies in Virginia, North Carolina and Texas.

“Fentanyl and heroin have inflicted immeasurable amounts of pain and brought devastation to families across the United States and in EDVA,” said Raj Parekh, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. “Due to their tenacity and commitment, our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners seized 24 illegal firearms, 30 kilograms of heroin and enough fentanyl to kill over 14 million people, saving our communities from significant loss of life and destruction.”

According to court documents, Ramiro Ramirez-Barreto, 44, from the Mexican State of Morelos, operated a continuing criminal enterprise with ties to Virginia, North Carolina, Texas and California. Ramirez-Barreto was linked to the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, as were his drug sources. His operation supplied cocaine, heroin and fentanyl to numerous drug trafficking organizations in Newport News, Virginia, and in Henderson and Greensboro, North Carolina.

According to one of Ramirez-Barreto’s many North Carolina customers, Ramirez-Barreto supplied him with 60 kilograms of heroin from early 2018 to mid-2019. Another one of Ramirez-Barreto’s customers was an inmate in federal prison operating a drug trafficking organization in Henderson, North Carolina using a bootleg mobile phone.

Ramirez-Barreto entered his guilty plea on Jan. 25, 2021, and he is scheduled to be sentenced on July 12, 2021, by U.S. District Judge David J. Novak. Ramirez-Barreto’s residence—where law enforcement found 19 kilograms of heroin and over $600,000 in cash—is being forfeited in connection with this case. In addition, he faces a mandatory minimum term of 20 years in prison and a maximum term of life in prison.

In addition to Ramirez-Barreto, four additional defendants either entered guilty pleas or were sentenced this week by Judge Novak for their role in the drug trafficking conspiracy. Tangynika Johnson, 44, of Henderson, North Carolina, assisted co-defendant Cory Bullock, an inmate in a West Virginia federal prison, in getting drug proceeds delivered to Ramirez-Barreto. Johnson pleaded guilty on Jan. 29, 2021, to using a communication facility for drug trafficking. She is scheduled to be sentenced on July 12, 2021, and faces a maximum penalty of four years in prison. James Noyes, 55, of Newport News, Virginia, was a mid-level heroin distributor within co-conspirator Damarcus Mackie’s drug trafficking organization. Noyes was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Jan. 29, 2021. Keith A. Brownson, 42, of Henderson, North Carolina, was a cocaine and heroin dealer who arranged drop-offs of drugs and drug proceeds with Ramirez-Barreto. Brownson pleaded guilty on Jan. 29, 2021, to conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of cocaine. He is scheduled to be sentenced on July 21, 2021, and faces a mandatory minimum of five years and a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison. Russell P. Johnson, 50, of Suffolk, Virginia, was sentenced to 140 months in prison on Jan. 25, 2021, for conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute one kilogram or more of heroin, 400 grams or more of fentanyl, and 500 grams or more of cocaine. Actual sentences for federal crimes are typically less than the maximum penalties. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after taking into account the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

Background on Operation Cookout

In Aug. 2019, over 120 law enforcement officers from 30 law enforcement agencies in Virginia, North Carolina and Texas executed a major operation, known as Operation Cookout, which resulted in 35 defendants being arrested for their respective roles in the conspiracy, along with the seizure of 24 firearms, 30 kilograms of fentanyl, 30 kilograms of heroin, 5 kilograms of cocaine and over $700,000 in cash.

“This operation shows our resolve, along with our area law enforcement partners, to never stop working—even throughout a global pandemic—to protect the communities we serve from these deadly drugs,” said Jarod Forget, Special Agent in Charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Washington Division. “Operation Cookout successfully removed a number of violent drug organizations from the streets and will enable these communities to focus on what matters most right now—the health and safety of their loved ones.”

“Operation Cookout demonstrates the extraordinary results that can be achieved when local and federal law enforcement work together to combat drug trafficking,” said Raymond Villanueva, Special Agent in Charge for the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Washington, D.C. field office. “Drug trafficking is a transnational problem and coordination like what we’ve seen here is the best way to combat and disrupt these trafficking networks.”

To date, 45 total defendants have been charged in Operation Cookout. Of those, 42 have admitted their criminal conduct and pleaded guilty. Thus far, 30 defendants have been sentenced, with the majority being sentenced to prisons terms ranging from two to ten years, and three defendants sentenced between 15 to 25 years in prison.

These prosecutions are part of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) investigation. OCDETF identifies, disrupts, and dismantles the highest-level drug traffickers, money launderers, gangs and transnational criminal organizations that threaten the United States by using a prosecutor-led, intelligence-driven, multi-agency approach that leverages the strengths of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies against criminal networks.

Raj Parekh, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia; Raymond Villanueva, Special Agent in Charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Washington D.C.; Jarod Forget, Special Agent in Charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Washington Division; Kelly R. Jackson, Special Agent in Charge, Washington, D.C. Field Office, IRS-Criminal Investigation; Colonel Gary T. Settle, Superintendent of Virginia State Police; Steve R. Drew, Chief of Newport News Police; Terry L. Sult, Chief of Hampton Police Division; Col. K.L. Wright, Chief of Chesapeake Police; and Hampton Commonwealth’s Attorney Anton A. Bell made the announcement.

The following law enforcement agencies provided significant assistance during the investigation and arrest operation: U.S. Marshals Service, Newport News Sheriff’s Office, Chesapeake Sheriff’s Office, York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office, Tennessee Highway Patrol, Amarillo Police and Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office. Approximately 30 law enforcement agencies assisted in the arrest operation in Virginia, North Carolina and Texas.

Updated: 02/01/2021