In Duluth, feds charge 29 in a drug crackdown

  • Article by: LARRY OAKES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 25, 2007 - 8:37 PM

The multi-agency probe was designed to send a message that outstate and rural drug dealers will be targeted, too, officials said.

DULUTH -Twenty-nine people from the Duluth area have been indicted on federal cocaine-trafficking charges, the result of a multi-agency investigation and a federal push to smoke out larger dealers in outstate Minnesota, officials announced Wednesday.

The U.S. attorney for Minnesota, Rachel Paulose, said the latest indictment, combined with one last month for 14 defendants in an alleged ring in the Faribault area, signals that "drug dealers who think they can avoid federal prosecution by setting up shop in greater Minnesota are mistaken."

Paulose, who took the unusual step of traveling to Duluth to stand beside local officials for the announcement, said that 25 of the 29 defendants named last week in the indictment were rounded up without incident -- most of them Tuesday -- in a day-long effort by about 100 officers from several agencies.

Authorities still were searching for the other four, and three are believed to be outside Minnesota, said Bernard Zapor, a regional special agent-in-charge with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The 69-count indictment accuses Bernard Vann, 41, a downtown Duluth shop owner who went by the nickname "Mooch," of leading and supplying a drug ring that included more than 30 dealers.

Officials estimated that in the past three years the ring sold 40 to 60 kilograms of cocaine and crack cocaine in the area of Duluth and neighboring Superior, Wis., making it one of the largest illegal drug operations ever to be dismantled in the region.

The defendants were scheduled for first appearances Wednesday and today in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. Officials said their arrests came as the result of a two-year undercover operation by the Lake Superior Drug and Gang Task Force.

As part of the operation, officers from the Duluth Police department and other area agencies were deputized to work with the federal government. Zapor said that allowed them to work in multiple jurisdictions and take advantage of tougher federal penalties.

"It will have a huge ripple effect on the drug market in this area," said Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay, whose department supplied two of the three principal officers involved in the operation.

Zapor said officers involved dedicated the operation to the late Duluth Police Sgt. Dennin Bauers, who laid the groundwork for the joint federal-local drug investigation before dying in a December 2005 accident while playing hockey.

Bauers often said that a sizeable portion of Duluth's drug trade in recent years had been plied by dealers originally from large cities such as Detroit, Minneapolis and Chicago, who were tapping less-competitive markets. He had been involved in a 2002 drug bust in which 23 people were arrested.

Officials said some of those named in the most recent indictment appear to fit that category.

"They find opportunities [for sales], and they're also not as likely to get shot on a street corner by a rival," said Richard Holmstrom, an attorney who has represented many defendants charged with drug dealing in the Duluth area.

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