Pubdate: Sun, 08 Nov 2009
Source: Omaha World-Herald (NE)
Copyright: 2009 Omaha World-Herald Company
Author: Karyn Spencer and Lynn Safranek
Note: authors are World-Herald Staff Writers
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)



Law enforcement officials round up suspects at El Primo's home in south
Omaha the day he was arrested -- thanks to help from an Omaha mom of six
who worked undercover to break up a drug ring linked to four murders.

Her husband was in prison, waiting out a 15-year sentence that he earned
by selling methamphetamine out of his mechanic shop. Her kids were at
home, missing their father.

So she called the Omaha Police Department, and because she was a woman and
spoke only Spanish, she talked to Detective Edith Andersen, the only woman
and Spanish speaker in the narcotics unit.

The caller wanted to become a police informant in hopes of shaving time
off her husband's prison term. She'd turn in drug dealers, and her
children could see their father again sooner. Andersen and the caller
agreed: The woman would volunteer her help to detectives.

It turned out to be no ordinary partnership.

The mother of six gained the trust of dangerous people who were part of a
drug ring active in Arizona, Texas, California, Nebraska and Iowa.
Authorities link the ring to four still officially unsolved Omaha

By the time the informant's involvement ended, police had seized 13 pounds
of methamphetamine worth an estimated $500,000 -- enough to feed the daily
habits of 17,600 or more users. Federal prosecutors convicted 11 people on
drug and gun charges, getting them prison sentences ranging from five to
27 years.

"She single-handedly took these people down," Andersen said.

The seven-month undercover undertaking was dubbed Operation Red Ice. This
story, based on documents and court hearings held in U.S. and Douglas
County district courts, as well as interviews with police, provides a rare
window into how a violent, sizable meth ring operated in Omaha -- and was
broken up by a working mother.

Her husband, Anuar Nunez, came to America to work.

A native of Honduras, he moved to California, fell in love and fathered
four children. The mother of his children, who also had two from an
earlier relationship, is not being named in this article out of concern
for her safety.

They moved to Nebraska about 2003, and after working as a mechanic a few
years in Omaha, Nunez opened his own garage, called Howard Shop, near 24th
and Howard Streets.

He also began selling meth.

Nunez bought meth from Juan Correa-Gutierrez, a man he knew as "El Primo."
Primo was a solid drug connection, bringing 15-pound loads of meth to
Omaha at least once a month, Nunez later told investigators.

Nunez would buy for about $450 an ounce and sell it for $700 -- a 35
percent profit -- and let Primo use his garage to load drugs and money
into a Ford Windstar van's hidden compartment.

Nunez's 35-year-old wife, who was born in Mexico, suspected her husband
had been selling drugs. She threatened to leave him if he was, but he hid
his activities as best he could. She once caught him with Primo unloading
a drug shipment and saw that the van's front seat had been removed. Nunez
saw her and ran her off.

Nunez also helped "cut" meth, diluting the nearly pure drugs with the
animal food supplement MSM at a house near 17th and Center Streets, where
Primo kept his stash.

Their partnership ended when police arrested Nunez in 2006, with nearly
$5,000 cash, a gun and 8 ounces of meth in a toolbox at his shop.

Primo gave him money to hire a lawyer, Nunez said, but, staring at a steep
prison sentence, Nunez later agreed to help police in the hope of cutting
his prison time.

His wife, seeing how her children pined for their father, had something
else to offer.

Her assistance.

After the wife joined forces with Detective Andersen, she picked up where
her husband had left off.

In late 2007, she reconnected with his drug-dealing cohorts, including
Abel Alvarado, who owned an old brick body shop at 11th and Grace Streets,
just north of downtown Omaha.

Alvarado ran the garage, the hub of the drug ring, with Juan
Orozco-Osbaldo, nicknamed Nica because he was Nicaraguan. Nica also had
worked as a mechanic with Nunez before his arrest.

Vehicles at the 11th Street garage were outfitted with secret compartments
- -- such as the hidden spot in Primo's Windstar -- to hide drugs and cash,
one dealer told police.

Two months after the woman reconnected with Alvarado, he ended up dead,
shot in his shop on a Friday evening in March 2008. At the time, his death
appeared mysterious.

Nica took over the garage, and investigators often saw him driving his
dead partner's SUV.

The woman worked during the day and spent her free time at the garage,
gaining the group's confidence. A friend watched her children, ages 15 to
3, while she gave the drug dealers rides in her car, washed their clothes
or took them food.

After a while, she also helped them, under police instruction, by buying
meth and arranging drug deals.

Members of the garage crew had no idea they were selling to an undercover
police officer and another informant working with the U.S. Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

She would call Andersen once, twice, three times a day with details and
information that at times could fill 25-page reports.

The risk to her life didn't need to be detailed -- it was understood. But
the woman and Andersen had a deal: If a situation made her uncomfortable,
she should leave.

I'm never going to ask you to do something you don't want to do, Andersen
told her.

The case was Andersen's first as a narcotics detective, and she was happy
to receive regular advice from colleagues with more experience -- seasoned
narcotics cops such as Officer Bob Branch, Sgt. Mark Noonan, Officer Paul
Milone and Officer Jeff Hunter, who had worked long narcotics
investigations and dealt with informants. The crew steadily collected
intelligence on the drug ring for months while they waited to catch a
sizable meth shipment.

Their patience paid off.

After months of making small drug purchases, the woman scored in July
2008. Primo, one drug dealer confided, had gone to California to pick up a
big load of meth.

The dealer groused that he would have to guard the load while Primo
traveled to Mexico for his daughter's Quinceanera, a Latino celebration
for a girl's 15th birthday.

He wanted Primo to pay him more for taking that risk.

By confiding in a police informant, the risk factor went through the roof.

With that tip, detectives began laying the groundwork to make a big bust.
They got search warrants for three locations and started watching places
where the Windstar van might arrive.

On a humid July day, the dealer sent the woman a text message.

I'll call you later. I'm busy with Papa.

The code words signaled the drugs had arrived.

The woman notified Andersen, and more than a dozen officers combed key

At the stash house, they found a loaded 9 mm pistol under a mattress and
$4,372 cash.

At the 11th Street garage, they found ammunition.

Inside Nica's apartment near 72nd Street and Interstate 80, hidden behind
a bedroom vent, they found $22,455 in cash.

They handcuffed and booked one suspect after another.

But what police didn't have was the van or a major cache of drugs.

Andersen contacted the woman, who offered other addresses, and officers
followed up on her tips through the night.

The investigators worked for two days straight -- no breaks, no sleep.

I'm not going to make all of this lady's hard work for nothing, Andersen

Shortly before dawn the next day, they finally spotted the van. They got
permission to search it. And found nothing.


They contacted the woman again. On her advice, police found, under the
front passenger seat, beneath the floor, a hidden compartment.

Inside was 8 pounds of meth, 90 percent pure. The higher the purity, the
closer the dealer's connection to high-end Mexican superlabs that produce
it in factory-size quantities.

The woman never snared a sale from Primo, the ringleader.

She heard he didn't trust her. If only everyone else had listened to him.

One by one, in the year since their arrests, the defendants have shuffled
in shackles and handcuffs into a mahogany-paneled courtroom at the U.S.
District Court to face a variety of drug and gun charges.

Primo's involvement was clear enough to charge him with conspiring to sell

He and Nica planned to take their charges to trial, but the day it was
scheduled to start, the prosecutor unveiled a surprise witness who would
testify to purchases totaling 100 pounds.

With that revelation, Primo pleaded guilty. Nica proceeded with a day of
trial before changing his mind and pleading, too.

Primo, 46, was sentenced to 27 years in federal prison, with the
possibility of trimming about 15 percent of his sentence for good conduct.
Nica, 43, was sentenced to 19 1/2 years. Both have filed appeals.

The others, ages 23 to 34, got five to 17 1/2 years, depending on their
level of involvement and cooperation after arrest. One person has yet to
be sentenced.

Nunez is hoping that his sentence will be reduced when the last case
concludes. For their safety, his wife and their children have moved from
the area. She said in court that her kids miss her husband more than she

"She's done a lot of work and she realized that this is a big deal,"
Andersen said. "She did what she did for her children, mostly, and she's
ready to get on with her life and do better things."
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