$11M Pa. drug ring used truck stop, chicken coop

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    Janet Kelley, New Era Staff Writer
    Lancaster New Era
    Copyright 2006 Lancaster Newspapers, Inc.

    LANCASTER, PA- It wasn't exactly the goose that laid the golden egg.
    But a red hen sitting on millions of dollars worth of drugs, buried in buckets beneath a Chester County chicken coop, is pretty darn close.
    On Monday, federal officials unsealed an indictment announcing several arrests and detailing a drug operation that brought in more than $11 million worth of methamphetamine and cocaine into the area.
    For years, agents watched members of the Ortega Drug Trafficking Organization as they trucked in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of drugs from Mexico and California.
    They'd meet at a Lancaster County truck stop, exchange cash for drugs and then hide the contraband in buckets under a Chadds Ford chicken coop, according to the indictment.
    Or they'd hide the drugs in a secret compartment inside or around a Nottingham trailer. Sometimes they would just bury it in the woods of Chester County, authorities said.
    Agents listened to their phone conversations, which included advice from one suspect to another to "get the egg from that red hen," according to the affidavit.
    The ring leader "believed that by carrying out drug transactions in rural, remote locations he would avoid detection by law enforcement," U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan said in a prepared statement announcing the arrests.
    "He was wrong," Meehan added.
    Last month, on Sept. 18, federal agents and state police closed the net.
    Nine members of the drug ring - from Chester County to California - were arrested that day, but the man police describe as the operation's "kingpin," Rogelio Ortega, has disappeared.
    Ortega, 43, who last lived on Newark Road in Toughkenamon with his brother Victor Ortega, 45, both face a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison if convicted of the crime, prosecutors said.
    On that day last month, police seized a shipment of 22 pounds of methamphetamine and 31 kilograms of cocaine hidden in the wheel of a tractor-trailer truck from California. The truck was parked at a Lancaster County truck stop.
    At the same time, agents executed search warrants throughout Chester County and arrested six members of the operation, seizing about 6 kilograms of methamphetamine, paraphernalia, $340,000 in cash, several rifles and a handgun.
    Across the country in California, federal agents also were arresting two more members of the ring. Humberto Avila, 39, and Pedro Gutierrez, 36, were arrested outside their California homes, where police found cash, 4 kilograms of cocaine and 6.5 pounds of methamphetamine.
    Prosecutors have charged Rogelio Ortega and his accomplices with conspiracy to distribute about 300 pounds of methamphetamine and more than 300 kilograms of cocaine.
    Each pound of methamphetamine is worth an estimated $18,000, according to federal authorities, and each kilogram of cocaine is worth between $20,000 and $22,000 when sold on the street.
    Investigators learned of the operation in 2002 by watching participants and listening to phone conversations until last month, according to the indictment.
    Rogelio Ortega obtained suppliers in Mexico and California who agreed to ship multi-kilogram quantities of methamphetamine and cocaine to Pennsylvania, according to the indictment.
    When Rogelio Ortega had to travel to make his deals, prosecutors said, he'd entrust the day-to-day operation to his brother, Victor Ortega. His job was to supervise employees, Jose Luis Ortega, 48, Landenberg, Jose Luis Vasquez, 45, Cochranville, Rolando Martes-Ortega, 35, Wilmington, Mark Cole, 42, West Grove, and Isidro Cortez-Melendez, whose age and address were unavailable.
    The employees, according to the indictment, were responsible for unloading the drugs and then resupplying the trucks with another precious cargo: cash for the suppliers
    In addition, the employees were the ones who did the cutting, packaging, storing and delivery of the smaller quantities of drugs to customers.
    The chicken coop was especially handy for some of the drug dealers, police said, because that's where they worked during the day.
    The suspects were watching police, too.
    "I did go all the way down to the property but I could not do anything because there were several horses around there," according to another recorded conversation between suspects in which police believe they discussed investigators. "They are the ones without the hats."

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