Federal drug agents in seven states yesterday began arresting 82 people, including a Northern Virginia real estate broker, indicted in a crackdown on what officials said is a Florida-based drug operation that used propeller-driven aircraft to smuggle illicit drugs into small airfields around the country.
Arrested at his office in Warrenton by Drug Enforcement Administration agents was Joseph Travis Tucker, 58, president of Tucker Investment Properties, a Fauquier County real estate firm.
Tucker was charged with three counts of conspiracy, possession and distribution related to what the DEA alleged were two large opium deals last year in Florida and Louisiana. A U.S. magistrate in Alexandria ordered Tucker held yesterday in lieu of $500,000 bond.
A second Northern Virginia man, identified as John Vredenburgh, also was arrested near Marathon, Fla., and was awaiting a bond hearing late yesterday, according to a federal prosecutor in Fort Lauderdale.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Zimet said Vredenburgh was charged in four indictments, including the one containing allegations against Tucker.
The arrests grew out of "Operation Screamer," an 18-month investigation designed to penetrate southern Florida's extensive drug trade. Prosecutors said a total of 14 indictments were returned last Wednesday by a federal grand jury in Fort Lauderdale. The indictments were made public yesterday after agents began rounding up defendants in North Carolina, Florida, Colorado, California, Louisiana, Texas and Virginia.
A screamer is a Colombian bird that flies at night.
At yesterday's hearing in Alexandria, DEA agent John Digravio testified that the two opium deals in which Tucker allegedly participated involved a total of 95 kilos of opium. Digravio said a kilo, or 2.2 pounds, of opium is worth up to $20,000, although the price may fall to as little as $8,000 per kilo for bulk purchases.
Digravio testified that Tucker was "involved in the negotiations and was present at the delivery" of the drugs. Tucker also helped count out $1 million in cash used to pay for the opium, the agent charged.
Despite the government's allegations, Magistrate Quin Elson said he would allow Tucker to post 10 percent of his $500,000 bond. Elson said a U.S. magistrate in Fort Lauderdale had told him on the telephone yesterday that Tucker was a "small fish" in the alleged smuggling operation.
Law enforcement officials said agents set up a fake company called Pars Inc. and used the firm to gain the confidence of drug importers.
"Three DEA agents, augmented by 10 others, infiltrated the circles of the airplane industry," said Brent Eaton, a DEA spokesman in Florida. The undercover agents, Eaton said, offered little-known landing fields and workers to pilots importing marijuana aboard DC-3, DC-4 and Constellation propeller planes.
"We provided the whole gamut of services to smugglers. We provided secure landing strips with lights, refueling capabilities . . . helping truck the marijuana away," he said. "We also found pilots and helped people buy planes."
Eaton said marijuana was smuggled aboard World War II and Korean War-vintage aircraft. "Most of the pilots were World War II- and Korean-vintage gentlemen because they were the only ones who knew how to fly those planes," he said.