Last summer, Kansas state troopers pulled over Joseph Johnson as the Minnesotan drove from Houston to Denver with what police say was more than 60 pounds of marijuana and $330,000 of cash. Faced with the prospect of prison time, Johnson began cooperating with authorities, setting into motion a sweeping investigation that led to an alleged multimillion-dollar drug smuggling enterprise.
Shortly after he was intercepted by troopers, Johnson wore a wire to a meeting with an alleged co-conspirator in a Twin Cities restaurant to discuss the Kansas incident, in which authorities seized money and drugs bound for a distribution ring based in Colorado — where laws allow legal growing, selling and use of marijuana for medical and recreational use.
These details are contained in a 52-count indictment announced Thursday by Colorado authorities. It included charges of tax evasion, conspiracy, money laundering and drug distribution against 32 people, including alleged ringleader Tri Trong Nguyen and Johnson, a “gofer” who authorities say ferried hundreds of pounds of pot in planes from his skydiving business. Other current and former Minnesotans were among the accused.
“More and more criminals are moving to Colorado to exploit our state’s drug laws, sell marijuana throughout the United States, and line their pockets with drug money,” said Kevin Merrill, assistant special agent in charge at the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Denver office.
DEA officials in Minnesota, Colorado and Kansas did not respond to calls for comment Friday.
The crackdown was part of “Operation Golden Go-fer,” a multijurisdictional probe targeting the flow of marijuana from Colorado to Minnesota. The case resulted in the dismantling of a major pot distribution ring that shipped about 400 pounds of marijuana to Minnesota between August 2010 and January 2015, bringing in more than $20 million in profits.
“I think this was something we all expected when marijuana use was legalized,” Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said at a news conference. “We are one of four states that offer something that a lot of people want.”