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Hunting a drug lord
Police say they've found elusive kingpin of crime ring
By Jason Kandel
For years, when police intercepted cocaine and methamphetamine coming into locations as far-flung as Hawaii and Florida, they would hear the same thing when they cracked the suspects carrying the drugs: "I got it from Henry in L.A."
"He was like the gray ghost," said Josh Rusk, an agent from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "We heard the name all the time. But we couldn't find him."
Then an informant's tip last summer helped unravel a complicated drug network that led them to a Henry -- the nickname of Genaro Rodriguez, a 30-year-old former San Fernando Valley gang member who they believe transformed himself from a minor drug dealer into the head of a multimillion-dollar cocaine and methamphetamine operation.
He and a man police say was his top captain, Jesus Frias, were arrested June 9 near Acton -- disrupting what authorities had dubbed the Rodriguez Drug Trafficking Organization.
While prosecutors in California weigh drug charges against him, Rodriguez is being extradited to Wisconsin, where he has been indicted on federal charges of conspiring to distribute 52 kilograms of cocaine -- 114 pounds valued at $10 million -- in that state's largest-ever drug seizure.
"It started with an informant, then that led all the way up to Mr. Rodriguez," said Deputy U.S. Attorney Gail Hoffman, who is prosecuting the Milwaukee case. "I think it's a tremendous case. There was outstanding cooperation from all the different jurisdictions involved."
Rodriguez's attorney, James Blatt of Encino, declined to comment about his client.
Federal agents believe Rodriguez was the Los Angeles connection for the Mexican Mafia, the notorious prison-based gang also known as Eme; the Valencia Cartel, which controls narcotics trafficking in Tijuana, and the Arellano Felix Organization, which controls narcotics trafficking through Mexico.
"Genaro Rodriguez was moving dope all over -- 100 pounds of crystal meth a month out of Los Angeles," said Will Torrence, the Drug Enforcement Administration special agent assigned to a task force assembled to crack the Rodriguez ring.
"He was the highest identified person in that organization. He's the largest that I've ever messed with."
Little is known about Rodriguez's early days in the San Fer gang, and his rise through the ranks. Rodriguez had one drug conviction -- in 2000, for possession of marijuana with intent to sell -- and was sentenced to a year in county jail.
He was newly married and living in Santa Clarita in 2001, when his wife, Eydi Guerrero, was murdered -- shot in the head, execution style, by three men during a home-invasion robbery in their upper-middle-class neighborhood. Rodriguez was shot in the face and and nearly died.
The shooters escaped with $400,000 of Rodriguez's cash.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Detective Joe Romero said Rodriguez eventually recovered enough to identify his wife's killers, but then recanted his statement. Authorities say they cannot build a case against the trio without Rodriguez's cooperation, so the investigation remains open.
However, Romero now suspects Guerrero and Rodriguez were shot by Eme for his refusal to pay taxes to them.
"The theory was that Eme was trying to collect," Romero said. "If he refused, there had to be repercussions."
Last June, Torrence said he was investigating narcotics trafficking in Southern California and put out a call to law-enforcement agencies nationwide, seeking information on a major dealer named Henry.
He heard from officials as far away as Hawaii and Florida, who said they were working drug cases with Henry as the source. In January, a detective in Honolulu passed along a key piece of information from an informant -- that Henry's wife had been murdered.
Also last summer, police in Santa Barbara began hearing about large quantities of potent and highly addictive crystal meth coming into their city from Los Angeles.
With help from state and federal officials, they formed a task force -- the Santa Barbara Regional Narcotics Team -- to crack the ring they believed was operating in Southern California. Using a system of wiretaps and confidential informants, they began to make headway in untangling a complex drug organization, reaching higher and higher up the hierarchy.
"We kept hearing over the wiretap of big deals going down," said Santa Barbara Police Detective John Ducher, a member of the task force.
One of their biggest breaks came last September with the arrest of Randy Ward -- who police say was a midlevel dealer nicknamed "Rock Star" -- and six other suspects. Authorities say they were wrapping and shipping large quantities of narcotics -- provided by Henry -- out of Ward's Woodland Hills apartment.
Ward is being held in a Los Angeles County jail in lieu of $3 million bail, awaiting trial on conspiracy charges.
At the time of Ward's arrest, investigators seized 20 kilograms of cocaine, 30 pounds of marijuana, five pounds of methamphetamine, seven guns and $250,000 cash.
"Randy Ward was the turning point for us," said Torrence, the DEA agent. "That was really the turning point of our intelligence.
"When we intercepted Henry's voice (on the wiretap), it was a victory. We were hearing him live on the wire. It was a nice moment."
Ducher said he, too, was astounded at the power Rodriguez seemed to wield.
"Rodriguez could come up with multiple kilos, multiple pounds," he said. "Wow -- I had never been that far up on the food chain. I figured he was probably a kingpin."
Rodriguez was living like someone at the top of his game, officials said. He carried thousands of dollars in cash, partied at nightclubs where he bought $500 bottles of champagne, and rode around in limousines.
He also covered his tracks well, tapping associates to put vehicle registrations, cell phone statements and apartment and house leases in their names.
The task force's case against Rodriguez then was bolstered last September by a call from authorities working a drug case in Milwaukee. Rodriguez's name had come up as a source for 52 kilograms of cocaine they'd just seized.
The investigators continued pushing and identified Jesus Frias, aka Eduardo Torres, as his right-hand man.
They found Frias living in an apartment in Granada Hills and put him under surveillance. On June 9, officials said, they were astounded to see Rodriguez driving away from Frias' apartment building, at the wheel of a BMW.
The agents followed the sedan and pulled it over on the Antelope Valley Freeway (14) near Acton. Under the driver's seat, they found an electronically controlled compartment containing 3 pounds of crystal meth and a 9 mm Glock pistol. A shoe box on the back seat contained $69,000.
Rodriguez and Frias were taken into custody. While Rodriguez has been turned over to federal authorities for prosecution, Frias is being held without bail on charges of transporting narcotics.
Torrence said that Rodriguez was caught because, while he was careful to cover his tracks, he wasn't careful enough.
"He did a lot of his own deliveries," he said. "He was a hands-on CEO. A lot of these guys are greedy and they don't trust anybody. It's a dirty business."
Jason Kandel, (818) 713-3664 firstname.lastname@example.org
Statistics: Posted by JD — July 4th, 2004, 1:40 pm