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A federal indictment unsealed Friday charged 27 people — three of them from Coffee County, Tennessee — with a string of federal crimes stemming from a large-scale conspiracy to distribute heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl and cocaine in an operation orchestrated from inside the Tennessee prison system.

Federal officials described the conspiracy as a "reign of violence and drug distribution," according to a news release from Acting U.S. Attorney Mary Jane Stewart, who presides over the court in Middle Tennessee.

In one act of violence in the conspiracy, a Nashville woman's hand was hacked off with a hatchet as punishment for losing drug money, authorities said.

Federal authorities said the conspiracy was ongoing since as early as 2018 and orchestrated from within the prison system by 29-year-old Humberto Morales — also known as "Pelon" — of Columbia, Tennessee. Morales has been a state prisoner since 2014.

Morales is charged in a 17-count indictment with conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute a variety of illegal drugs, U.S. Department of Justice spokesperson David Boling said Wednesday. Other charges include kidnapping, money laundering, making threats by electronic communication and firearms violations.

"Some of his charges are possession of a machine gun, unlawful drug user in possession of a firearm and possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug crimes" among other counts, Boling said.

Officials said eight other people also were charged in separate indictments issued last week and two others were previously charged. Many defendants charged as the investigation progressed have been in custody awaiting indictment.

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Prison drug ring

Officials listed Manchester, Tennessee, brothers Jacob Brandon Lee, 25, also known as "Grenas," Justin Blake Lee, 26, also known as "Chino," and fellow Manchester resident Jasmine Taylor, 26, among those arrested on the federal indictment issued Friday.

The Lees are each charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute controlled substances, including 1 kilogram or more of heroin, 500 grams or more of a substance containing methamphetamine, 400 grams or more of a substance containing a detectable amount of fentanyl, marijuana, and other controlled substances, according to federal complaints.

The complaint against Justin Blake Lee also contains counts of attempted possession of 500 grams or more of a substance containing methamphetamine, possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug felony, possession of substances containing heroin and fentanyl with intent to distribute, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug felony.

Jasmine Taylor is charged with possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking felony, conspiracy to commit money laundering with intent to further and intent to disguise, use of communications facilities in committing a drug trafficking felony, drug trafficking conspiracy involving 1 kilogram or more of heroin, 500 grams or more of substance containing methamphetamine, 400 grams or more of substance containing fentanyl, and quantities of cocaine, marijuana and other controlled substances, her federal arrest warrant states.

Coffee County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Frank Watkins said Taylor is being held at the jail in Manchester.

Jacob Lee is one of Morales' alleged co-conspirators, who with his girlfriend 27-year-old co-defendant Tiffany Messick, of Shelbyville, Tennessee, used cellphones to traffic large quantities of methamphetamine, heroin and fake roxycodone pills that actually contained fentanyl and marijuana, federal complaints state.

The Lee brothers, the two women and other co-defendants in the investigation trafficked large quantities of drugs, the complaints state. Photos of drug deliveries made through the U.S. Postal Service were relayed via cellphone among the Lees, Messick and Morales, the complaints state. The Lees were imprisoned while communicating with Messick, who became linked with Jasmine Taylor in making drug deliveries, as well as an occasion when federal agents intercepted a drug parcel containing more than 4 kilograms of pure meth addressed to Taylor's father's home. Authorities seized the meth, a shotgun and 7 ounces of heroin from her car.

The Tennessee Department of Correction sought federal help to address criminal activity inside the prison system, officials said. The prison-based drug ring 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, more than 50 pounds of methamphetamine and smaller quantities of cocaine and marijuana.

The conspiracy is linked to at least one slaying, "horrific" assaults and other violent crimes, the release states.

Morales, the alleged leader of the organization, routinely obtained contraband cellphones smuggled into the prison facilities where he was housed. Morales used the phones and encrypted communication services such as "WhatsApp" to orchestrate drug distribution, order acts of violence and direct the flow of cash from drug sales between Middle Tennessee and Mexico, officials said.

Notable acts of violence associated with the conspiracy include the severing of a woman's hand in November 2019, officials said.

"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," officials state in the release. "This incident was recorded on video and sent via encrypted communication on a cellphone."

Another violent act involved a man identified as a hit man 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," officials said.

The indictment also charges Morales and Kim Birdsong, 49, of Nashville, with using cellphones "in an effort to murder a person known as 'Pancho' or 'Mekaniko,' and that cash, drugs, and the cancellation of a pre-existing drug-related debt were to be provided as payment for that murder."

That person was shot multiple times on April 4, 2019, in Nashville, but survived, officials said.

Law enforcement officers seized more than $160,000 in cash and multiple firearms, including a handgun that was illegally modified to operate as a machine gun with an operational silencer, according to the release.

Two of those sought in the federal investigation are fugitives, including Morales' girlfriend, 32-year-old Erika Vasquez, also known as "Chula," of Memphis and Columbia, Tennessee, and 28-year-old Magdiel Pina Ramirez, also known as "Big Show," of Mexico.

Officials said Ramirez served as a hit man in Mexico and was the man who cut off part of his own finger. The two are believed to be in Mexico.

Stewart praised the efforts of the law enforcement agencies and noted "the unparalleled cooperation between the agencies and the significant resources contributed by the Tennessee Department of Correction 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, officials said.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

CHARGED ON FEDERAL INDICTMENT

Others charged in the federal investigation are:

Jose Juan Alvarado, 44; Oscar Avelar Anguiano, aka Chucky, 33; Grecia Barrios, 33; Kim Lamont Birdsong, aka Bird, 49; Jennifer Cano, 33; Ricardo Davalos-Martinez, 28; Mario Garcia Flores, aka Christhian Colmenares-Ruiz, 33; Jonhy Fernando Jimenez, 38; Antonio Sanchez-Lopez, 23; Jennifer Montejo, 33; Korrine Parker, 43; Luis Ramirez Escudero, 27; Phillip Christopher Smith, aka Felipe, 41; Sinquan D. Smith, 27, all of Nashville; Avigael Cruz, aka Traviesio, 29; Billy Cruz, aka Pee Wee 26; Kevin Oliva-Hernandez, 31; Jairo Rostran, aka Poffi, 28, all of Smyrna, Tenn.; Rico Gross, 38; Armando Lopez, aka Mando, 40; Jesse Sanchez, aka Papi, aka Bori, 31, all of Goodlettsville, Tenn.; Jacob Lee, aka Grenas, 25; Justin Blake Lee, aka Chino, 26; Jasmine Taylor, 26, all of Manchester, Tenn.; Kevin Tidwell, aka Miklo, 27; Melinda Tidwell, both of Ashland City, Tenn.; Terrance Marquette Bobo, 28, of Memphis, Tenn.; Pearline Neal, 31, of Gallatin, Tenn.; Austin Dodd, 25, aka Chucky, of Chapmansboro, Tenn.; Tiffany Messick, 27, of Shelbyville, Tenn.; Stacy Owens, 31, of Decaturville, Tenn.; Zenaida Cano, 42; of Phoenix, Arizona; David Ku, 45, of Inglewood, California; and Gerson Jimenez-Garcia, 38, of Honduras.

Source: U.S. Attorney’s Office, Middle District of Tennessee

 

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