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Saturday, November 14, 1998

West Texas drug busts net 29 suspects

BIG SPRING (AP) -- A West Texas cocaine trafficking investigation has led to 29 arrests Friday in Big Spring, Midland and San Angelo, including the apprehension of one of the region's most notorious -- and elder -- drug cartel patriarchs, authorities said.

Santos Arzola Mendoza, 71, and several members of his family were arrested as part of a two-year investigation called "Operation Purple Cow." More than 200 local, state and federal agents participated in the arrests, which followed months of undercover drug purchases by police.

Big Spring Police Chief Lonnie Smith said Mendoza has been the center of the drug cartel, which transported cocaine throughout the region, for more than 20 years.

"I've been on the department for 21 years," Smith said. "I've known some of their family. To say that organization has been here since the late 60's may be an understatement. I think some of them may go back into the 50s."

Those arrested in addition to the senior Mendoza were family members Jacob Marin, 27; Juana Arsiaga Mendoza, 68; Phillip Mendoza Jr., 30; Robert Mendoza, 40; and Roberto Mendoza Sr., 40, all of Big Spring; as well as Marcus Chavarria, 20, of Midland; Spencer Coker, 27, of Sand Springs; Ralph Rodriguez, 34, of San Angelo; and Big Spring residents Larcarnly Cross, 55; Michael Deleon, 33; John Jay Flores, 27; Ruben Gamboa, 42; Karen Harrison, 40; Anthony Ray Hayes, 33; Gene Hernandez, 18; Arthur Jackson, 21; Leslie Kimble, 38; Pamela Palmer, 30; Johnny Rangel, 32; Edward Lee Roach, 27; Michael Vanderbilt, 24; and Wesley Todd Watson, 20.

The multi-agency drug sweep included officers from the FBI, DEA, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, plus state, county and local law officers, the Big Spring Herald reported Friday.

The charges against those arrested include establishment of illegal distribution operations, drug possession with intent to distribute, felony possession of firearms, and distribution of cocaine within 1,000 feet of public elementary schools.

Because many of the individuals had been previously arrested, officials said they planned to ask a U.S. magistrate to order them held without bond.

The FBI contributed 75 agents to participate in the arrests.

"We had the opportunity to reach in and take a drug organization by the throat and essentially take them out today," said Ed Lueckenhoff, assistant special agent-in-charge of the FBI's Dallas office.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dick Baker said shutting down the cartel became a multi-agency task after Texas Department of Public Safety officials discovered that FBI and ATF had already begun numerous investigations of the Mendoza family.

"When DPS realized the scope and magnitude of Mendoza's operation, they consulted with other law enforcement agencies in the area and discovered that each agency possessed intelligence information regarding the organization," Baker said.

"Joining forces is sometimes the best way to handle a situation like this."

Baker said Mendoza's operation was "roughly akin to an all-day drug store."

The Friday drug sweep came on the heals of the first arrest by officers of the West Texas Narcotics Task Force last week. Howard County recently affiliated with the new task force after the former task force was disbanded.

Officers arrested Emiel Jozef Vandersmissen, 40, for allegedly selling cocaine to an undercover police officer, District Attorney Hardy Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson said a search warrant was executed at Vandersmissen's home and turned up for cocaine. He said the man will be looking at a stiff sentence because he was "caught trying to sell the drugs within the 1,000-foot drug free zone around Goliad Middle School."

The prosecutor said Vandersmissen had been employed by the Big Spring State Hospital for more than 10 years.

(Correspondent China Long and Regional Editor Roy A. Jones II contributed to this story.)

 

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