Four Bayfield area residents were among 14 people arrested over the last 45 days as part of an ongoing methamphetamine investigation by the Southwest Drug Task Force and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
According to information from Dan Bender at the La Plata County Sheriff's Office, locals arrested are Joseph Fitapelli, 55; Aaron McMinn, 41; Danielle Burton, 38; and Ronnie Gunkel, 41.
Durango area arrestees are Derrik Martinez, 28; Pamela Chandler, 50; Peyton St. Germain, 21; Milton Korthank, 38; and Travis Shield, 49.
Others are Loyd Groomer from Farmington NM, 58; and from Las Vegas, NV, Jose Garcia-Ochoa, 19; Daniel Gastelo-Ochoa, 24; Cristian Lopez, 22; and Miguel Miranda-Sanchez, 23.
Bender said they were arrested for distribution of a Schedule I controlled substance. Cash and around 10 pounds of meth were seized.
This was a long-term investigation by the task force and DEA aimed at a meth distribution organization that was moving large quantities of the drug from southwestern U.S. cities to Durango and Southwest Colorado, Bender said. The group has connections in Las Vegas, Nev., California, and into high-level Mexican drug cartel subjects.
"At the center of the investigation was Joseph Fitapelli of Bayfield," he reported. "In the early morning hours of March 11, two residents of Las Vegas were contacted by investigators with the Southwest Drug Task Force. They were taken into custody, and a search warrant was executed on the vehicle they were driving. Approximately four pounds of suspected methamphetamine was found in the vehicle."
He continued, "Fitapelli was arrested after a separate traffic stop and was in possession of between $8,000 and $10,000 in cash. The methamphetamine was destined for Fitapelli."
Several search warrants were executed with help from area law enforcement agencies, Bender said. Several ounces of meth, suspected stolen guns and stolen property were recovered during searches. The investigation is continuing, and other arrests are expected.
"Approximately 10 pounds of methamphetamine with a street value of about $450,000 has been seized over the course of this investigation," he said.
The drug task force includes investigators from the Sheriff's Office, Bayfield Marshal's Office, Ignacio Police, Durango Police, and Durango DEA office.
Bayfield Marshal Joe McIntyre told the Times, "I've been updated weekly, been aware of this extended investigation that's been going on for six months or so, and that it was fairly significant, stretching to California and Mexican drug cartels."
He said, "Our deputy played an integral part in that investigation. We also helped assist the team with an arrest here in Bayfield of Aaron McMinn. We also helped secure locations where we suspected stolen property might be located while they obtained search warrants for those sites. One was in town."
McIntyre went on, "There was property seized for further investigation to determine if it was stolen and who the owner may be."
Asked what made items suspected as being stolen, he said, "There were items that were brand new in the box. There was one handgun that was recovered. What piques the interest in the brand new items is there was a rash of goods stolen from businesses in Durango."
He didn't know if those were break-ins, shoplifting, or an inside job.
Bender said the 6th Judicial District Attorney's Office provided valuable support and review during the investigation. Other participating agencies are the Cortez Police, Montezuma County Sheriff's Office, and the Region II narcotics task force in San Juan County in New Mexico.