Multi-million dollar Butte drug trafficking organization dismantled

Representatives from multiple law enforcement agencies took a moment to celebrate the recent takedown of a major Butte drug trafficking organization at a press conference Thursday.

The organization had ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, one of two cartels responsible for bringing methamphetamine and fentanyl into the country from Mexico, U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich said at the press conference.

Laslovich said the government has estimated the drug trafficking network was responsible for bringing 2,043 pounds of meth and more than 722,000 fentanyl-laced pills from Mexico into Butte for redistribution. He added that it laundered approximately $2.98 million in drug proceeds, of which law enforcement seized $32,875 in cash.

All the drugs came through U.S. ports of entry, either by rail or vehicle, and brought to stash houses in California, Laslovich said. From there, large quantities were transported to Butte by mail or vehicle to local dealers who then trafficked the drugs to Montana towns including Butte, Missoula, Helena, Great Falls, Bozeman, Billings and Wolf Point.

“For street-level distribution, the dealers then launder drug proceeds through the mail, cash shipments and wire transactions back to the cartel in Mexico,” Laslovich said. “This is the stuff that we are only supposed to see in movies, and yet it occurred right here in Butte and the surrounding areas.”

Law enforcement also seized 65 pounds of the meth – the equivalent of more than 235,000 doses – more than 2,000 counterfeit OxyContin pills containing fentanyl, three pounds of heroin and 19 firearms, some of which were displayed on a table at the press conference.

Locations of the seizures were not immediately released.

The investigation into the drug trafficking organization, which began in 2019 with a local tip about a “suspicious package containing money being sent to California,” ended with the convictions of 22 people.

This includes 15 people from Butte and three individuals Laslovich described as having “direct links” to the Sinaloa Cartel. One of the people sentenced was from Helena and two were from Great Falls.

Twenty have already been sentenced to more than a cumulative 130 years in prison, Laslovich said. One died prior to sentencing and another, Heriberto Tavares of California, who had direct ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, will be sentenced on Feb. 21, 2023.

Butte-Silver Bow Sheriff Ed Lester said one thing he wanted the public to take from the bust is that all the tips they call in to local law enforcement are taken seriously and investigated.

“I think a lot of times there’s some frustration because this operation is so long and complicated and detailed, that a person who calls a tip in on a Monday, they expect something done by Wednesday,” Lester said. “And they want the people who are in the stash house across the street gone by the end of the week, and we’re not able to do that all the time.

“And so what this shows is all those tips that come into our agencies throughout the task force throughout the state of Montana, are passed on to our task force partners or our state partners in Montana Highway Patrol or our federal partners in law enforcement. And all of those things are what contributes to operations like this.”

Both Laslovich and Lester said that although the bust and the collaboration that brought it to fruition are worth celebrating, this marks the beginning of their work on these kinds of cases, not the end.

For example, Lester said at the press conference that community members who have taken notice of stash houses in their neighborhoods may see a difference with this bust. However, it’s only a matter of time before someone else steps in to take the place of those imprisoned to distribute the drugs.

“It’s going to be like Whack a Mole,” Laslovich said. “These cases … we keep investigating them and keep prosecuting them, but more people pop up and you feel the same.”

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen spoke at the press conference about the difference in the sheer volume of drugs currently being trafficked compared to when he was prosecuting drug crimes in Montana.

“Just three short years ago when I was prosecuting drug crimes on Fort Peck Indian Reservation, I can remember a time when grams of methamphetamine and a handful of fentanyl pills were a big bust,” Knudsen said.

“Busts like the one you see here show us that that is no longer the case here in Montana. We are now dealing with pound-, and as the U.S. Attorney said, ton-level shipments of methamphetamine in the state of Montana and multi-thousand tablet shipments of deadly fentanyl coming into our state.”

Despite this, Lester said dismantling the organization puts the cartels and people bringing drugs into the community on notice that “Southwest Montana is a dangerous place to do your business.”

“So find someplace else to go,” Lester said. “We’ll take your cars, we’ll take your house, we’ll take your drugs, your money, your guns, and last of all, we’ll take your freedom.”

Stacy Zinn-Brittain, the DEA resident agent in charge for Montana and Jarrod Resendez, assistant inspector in charge at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, also spoke at the conference.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Montana, released the following individuals convicted in connection to this case.

Montana defendants convicted:

Charles Clement, 36, of Butte – Conspiracy – 54 months in prison

Steve Shipe, 52, of Butte – Conspiracy – 60 months in prison

Jeremy Rivers, 45, of Butte – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 60 months in prison

Dale Johnson, 27, of Butte – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 46 months in prison

Michael Robert Lee, 25, of Helena – 46 months in prison

James Starcevich, 25, of Butte – Conspiracy – 5 years of supervision, 1 day in prison

Charles Petty, 34, of Butte – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 120 months in prison

MaryJane Galloway, 37, of Butte – Deceased prior to sentencing

Shawn Miller, 33, of Butte – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 60 months in prison

Josh Schroeder, 40, of Butte – Conspiracy – 188 months in prison

David Shaver, 34, of Butte – Conspiracy – 54 months in prison

David Viers, 59, of Butte – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 12 months in prison

Opal Cox, 40, of Great Falls – Conspiracy – 144 months in prison

Travis Soderberg, 47, of Butte – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 96 months in prison

Deric Sherman, 55, of Butte – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 78 months in prison

Anthony Lamere, 33, of Butte – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 84 months in prison

Gloria Lucero, 54, of Great Falls – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 64 months in prison

Clayton Cleland, 40, of Butte – Conspiracy – 54 months in prison

California defendants convicted:

Oscar Luna, 32, Bakersfield – Conspiracy – 72 months in prison

Heriberto Tavares, 29, Anaheim – Possession with Intent to Distribute, sentencing set for February 21, 2023

Mexico defendants convicted:

Humberto Villareal, 34, Culiacan, Sinaloa – Possession with the Intent to Distribute – 204 months in prison

Ricardo Ramos Medina, 34, Culiacan, Sinaloa – Conspiracy – 96 months in prison

 Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan G. Weldon prosecuted the cases.

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