A judge on Thursday sentenced a leader in a drug ring that prosecutors say flooded central Montana with high-grade methamphetamine from California, marking the end of an investigation that resulted in the arrest and conviction of 20 people.
U.S. District Judge Brian Morris sentenced Joshua Alberto Rodriguez, 29, of Los Angeles to 22 1/2 years in prison. Rodriguez previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, conspiracy involving firearm and drug trafficking crime, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Betley described Rodriguez as the kingpin who made at least 13 trips to Great Falls in 2014. He would hand off pounds of nearly pure meth that he had transported in rental cars and stick around town until others had sold the drug from Havre to Butte and brought him the profits.
Rodriguez, speaking through an interpreter, apologized but told the judge that he was not the leader of the organization as he asked for a lighter sentence.
“I’m sorry to all of Montana for having brought what I brought here,” he told Morris. “I am guilty, but not of being the boss.”
Prosecutors estimated the drug ring sold 50 pounds of methamphetamine in Montana between 2013 and 2014, and authorities seized an additional 13 pounds when they moved in to shut it down in September. Great Falls Police Detective Jason Gange estimated Rodriguez bought the drugs for $3,000 a pound in California and sold them for $17,000 to $20,000 a pound in Montana.
The judge noted that others may be willing to pick up the supply chain now that this ring is busted, given the opportunity to make large profits in Montana. State residents can’t blame outsiders alone for bringing the drug problem here, as there were plenty of locals willing to participate in the operation, he said.
“We have to look ourselves in the eye,” Morris said.
U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter said the investigation dismantled “an acute and violent threat” to Great Falls and surrounding areas, but he acknowledged in a news conference that other dealers have stepped in since the bust. He declined to elaborate.
The drugs appear to have been manufactured in Mexico and were sold uncut in Montana, said Joseph Kirkland of the Drug Enforcement Agency
The other defendants include residents of California and Montana who range in age from 25 to 46. All 20 have been ordered to pay a $2.4 million monetary judgment.
Investigators used search warrants, a wiretap, physical surveillance and financial documents to learn the details of the operation. They also tracked Rodriguez’s trips to Montana through the GPS on his phone.
The investigation culminated with the September 2014 arrests of Rodriguez and Eduardo Ocegueda-Ruiz in Great Falls. Prosecutors said Rodriguez brought in Ocegueda-Ruiz to intimidate others in the ring who were ripping off Rodriguez.
Ocegueda-Ruiz received a sentence of life in prison because of three previous felony drug convictions. He is appealing the sentence.
A total of 25 guns were seized, including 10 found in Rodriguez’s California home. Rodriguez would trade drugs for guns or take guns to pay off a drug debt, prosecutors said.
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