A multi-year investigation by HSI
NASHVILLE — An investigation conducted by Homeland Security Investigations resulted in a federal indictment for 27 individuals accused of committing crimes relating to conspiracy to distribute illicit drugs.
The acting U.S. attorney for the middle district of Tennessee made the announcement March 31 in Nashville.
In total, 37 individuals have been charged in the large-scale conspiracy to distribute heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl and cocaine that began as early as 2018 and was orchestrated from within the Tennessee state prison system. Other charges resulting from the investigation include kidnapping, money laundering, making threats by electronic communication, and firearms violations.
“HSI agents worked in collaboration with the numerous federal, state and local law enforcement agencies involved in this multi-year OCDETF investigation, to bring federal charges against individuals alleged to have ties to MS-13, Sur-13 and other street gangs,” said Jerry C Templet, Jr. special agent in charge, HSI Nashville. “This conspiracy, which was orchestrated by an inmate within the state of Tennessee prison system, involved the large-scale distribution of heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl and cocaine, all dangerous drugs that threaten the safety of our communities. The organization was also alleged to have participated in numerous other violent crimes.”
This ongoing multi-year Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force investigation is the outcome of a previous request by the Tennessee Department of Correction for federal law enforcement assistance to address criminal activity occurring within their system.
The numerous federal, state and local law enforcement agencies involved include: Homeland Security Investigations; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives; IRS Criminal Investigations; U.S. Postal Inspection Service; FBI; TDOC-Office of Investigations & Compliance; and others.
The alleged leader of the organization, Humberto Morales, aka Pelon, 29, of Columbia, Tennessee, has been incarcerated since 2014. Morales routinely obtained contraband cell phones smuggled into the prison facilities where he was housed, which he used, along with encrypted communication services such as WhatsApp, to orchestrate activities of the drug distribution network, order acts of violence against individuals, and direct the flow of cash from drug sales between middle Tennessee and Mexico. Drug proceeds were also used to pay co-conspirators, pay drug shipment expenses, bail and legal services, and purchase firearms.
The resulting indictments and other court documents allege that the organization had ties to MS-13, Sur-13, and other street gangs and distributed tens of thousands of fentanyl-laced pills; multiple kilograms of fentanyl and heroin; over 50 pounds of methamphetamine, which was often 95-99 percent pure (commonly referred to as “ice”); as well as smaller quantities of cocaine and marijuana. It also alleges that this well-orchestrated conspiracy is linked to at least one murder, horrific assaults, and multiple other crimes of violence.
Notable acts of violence associated with the conspiracy include the severing of a woman’s hand in November 2019 as punishment for losing drug proceeds. During this incident, the woman was kidnapped, driven around Nashville, and then a hatchet was used to chop off one of her hands, before leaving her lying on the street. This incident was recorded on video and sent via encrypted communication on a cell phone. Another incident involved a hitman for the organization who, at the direction of Morales, cut off part of his own pinky finger to prove his continued loyalty to the organization after he lost or stole a small quantity of drugs.
The indictment also charges Morales and Kim Birdsong, 49, of Nashville, with using facilities of interstate commerce (cellular telephones and encrypted messaging services) in an effort to murder a person known as “Pancho”/”Mekaniko,” and that cash, drugs, and the cancellation of a pre-existing drug-related debt were to be provided as payment for that murder. In April 2019, that person was shot multiple times in Nashville, but survived.
Many of the defendants were charged by criminal complaint as the investigation progressed and have been in custody awaiting indictment. Others were arrested Friday and are currently in federal custody. Two others are fugitives, including Morales’ girlfriend, Erika Vasquez, 32, aka Chula, of Memphis and Columbia, Tenn., and Magdiel Pina Ramirez, aka Big Show, 28, of Mexico. Ramirez is the person described above who served as a hitman in Mexico and cut off part of his own finger. Both are currently believed to be in Mexico.
In addition to those previously mentioned, others charged in this investigation include Tennessee residents:
Jose Juan Alvarado, 44, of Nashville; Oscar Avelar Anguiano, aka Chucky, 33, of Nashville; Grecia Barrios, 33, of Nashville; Kim Lamont Birdsong, aka Bird, 49, of Nashville; Jennifer Cano, 33, of Nashville; Ricardo Davalos-Martinez, 28, of Nashville; Mario Garcia Flores, aka Christhian Colmenares-Ruiz, 33, of Nashville.
Also, Jonhy Fernando Jimenez, 38, of Nashville; Antonio Sanchez-Lopez, 23, of Nashville; Jennifer Montejo, 33, of Nashville; Korrine Parker, 43, of Nashville, Tenn; Luis Ramirez Escudero, 27, of Nashville; Phillip Christopher Smith, aka Felipe, 41, of Nashville; Sinquan D. Smith, 27, of Nashville; Avigael Cruz, aka Traviesio, 29, of Smyrna; Billy Cruz, aka Pee Wee 26, of Smyrna; Kevin Oliva-Hernandez, 31, of Smyrna; Jairo Rostran, aka Poffi, 28, of Smyrna; Rico Gross, 38, of Goodlettesville; Armando Lopez, aka Mando, 40, of Goodlettesville.
Also, Jesse Sanchez, aka Papi, aka Bori, 31, of Goodlettsville; Jacob Lee, aka Grenas, 25, of Manchester; Justin Blake Lee, aka Chino, 26, of Manchester; Jasmine Tayor, 26, of Manchester; Kevin Tidwell, aka Miklo, 27, of Ashland City; Melinda Tidwell, of Ashland City; Terrance Marquette Bobo, 28, of Memphis; Pearline Neal, 31, of Gallatin; Austin Dodd, 25, aka Chucky, of Chapmansboro; Tiffany Messick, 27, of Shelbyville; and Stacy Owens, 31, of Decaturville.
Arizona resident Zenaida Cano, 42, of Phoenix; California resident David Ku, 45, of Inglewood; and Gerson Jimenez-Garcia, 38, of Honduras were also charged.
Jennifer Montejo, who was charged in the conspiracy in December 2019 and pleaded guilty in November 2020, was sentenced on Friday to 25 years in prison. She was arrested at a Nashville bus station as she returned from traveling to Los Angeles days earlier. At the time of her arrest, four kilograms of fentanyl and a kilogram of heroin were found in her luggage.
Acting U.S. Attorney Mary Jane Stewart praised the tremendous efforts of the law enforcement agencies involved in this extensive investigation and noted the unparalleled cooperation between the agencies and the significant resources contributed by TDOC and its desire to reduce criminal activity by its inmates.
If convicted, most defendants face a minimum of 10 years in prison and many face up to life in prison.
All defendants not previously convicted are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
HSI is a directorate of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of over 10,400 employees consists of more than 7,100 Special Agents assigned to 220 cities throughout the United States, and 80 overseas locations in 53 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.