TULLAHOMA--Federal authorities charged a total of 32 people, including seven from Shelbyville, with drug trafficking offenses in what is described as a major illicit organization with tentacles stretching from Mexico to Memphis to southern Middle Tennessee.
Two 47 count indictments were returned by a federal grand jury in Chattanooga on March 14, according to James R. "Russ" Dedrick, acting United States Attorney of the Eastern District of Tennessee.
Those from Shelbyville facing charges are Joel Fernandez-Vargas, 37; Jose Vargas, 55; Ramiro Onofre, 26; Francisco Javier Fernandez, 29; Timothy Harris, 46; Oscar Alejandro Melgoza, 27; and Shannon Prosser, age 28.
All were charged with conspiring to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine and 100 kilograms or more of marijuana from June 2005 through March 2006.
If convicted, the defendants face a mandatory minimum of 10 years to life on the conspiracy charge. Those charged with distribution face a sentence up to 20 years.
Fernandez-Vargas is charged with distribution of cocaine on two occasions and distributing methamphetamine once, Jose Vargas and Prosser are each charged with distributing cocaine on one occasion, and all of those charged are accused of using a telephone to facilitate the distribution of controlled substances.
The maximum punishment for the offenses involving the telephone is up to four years in jail on each count.
The other indictment involved 18 people primarily from Tullahoma who were also charged with conspiring to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine and 100 kilograms or more of marijuana from December 2003 through March 2006.
Those arrested on Tuesday are scheduled to appear in United States District Court in Chattanooga today before Magistrate Judge William B. Carter.
Dedrick said he was proud of the cooperation between local, state and federal law enforcement to bring about the successful operation, including the Bedford County Sheriff's Department and the Shelbyville Police Department, who provided support.
The investigation has been ongoing for three years and picked up steam over the last few months, identifying multiple individuals and organizations involved in trafficking drugs in this area, with additional indictments promised. Over 100 officers were involved in the operation.
Dedrick indicated that there were other law enforcement operations ongoing that were rounding up suspects related to this alleged ring on Wednesday.
Authorities seized about 4 pounds of cocaine and 200 pounds of pot, multiple guns, cash in addition to items seized in other parts of the country.
Primary agencies involved in the ongoing investigation include the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (AHIDTA) Southeast Tennessee Task Force, (comprised of members of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department, Chattanooga Police Department, Tennessee Bureau of Investigations, Tennessee Alcohol Beverage Commission) Tullahoma Police Department, Moore County Sheriff Department and the 17th Judicial District Task Force.
Also involved were a number of Tennessee sheriff and police departments as well as law enforcement from Dalton, Ga., the Tennessee National Guard, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), Department of Homeland Security, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.