State and local investigators uncovered a large scale methamphetamine distribution ring earlier this month, following a 10 month investigation that spanned two states and various Western North Carolina counties.
According to a criminal complaint and affidavit released last week by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, nine individuals from WNC were rounded up in the investigation which began last fall. The investigation was spearheaded by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and was assisted by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) and the Macon County Sheriff’s Office.
Authorities arrested William Andrew Estes, 40, of Franklin; Ricky Dean Fisher, 55, of Sylva; Johnny Ray Frady, 47, of Cullowhee; William Wesley Hargett, 42, of Shelby; Kirsten Beaubien McGillivray, 40, of Highlands; Lonnie Payne Jr., 44, of Sylva; Pedro Avila Serrano, 38, address unknown; Michael James Taylor, 29, of Sylva; and Larry Michael Watkins, 58, of Bryson City. The U.S. Attorney’s office said the suspects’ bonds were set at a minimum of $25,000 and they are expected in federal court on Aug. 26.
The suspects, all of whom played various roles in the operation of the ring, are Jackson, Macon or Swain county residents and were arrested on numerous charges stemming from the distribution of crystal methamphetamine in their respective communities.
Details about the case and the suspects involved are scarce. However, several details about the investigation of the drug ring were laid out in the Aug. 5 complaint filed with the Western District Court of North Carolina by DEA Special Agent Dan Guzzo. The complaint and affidavit were not released until last week to protect the witnesses and informants in the case.
“This case is still on-going and is nowhere close to being fully adjudicated,” said DEA Public Information Officer Chuvalo Truesdell on Tuesday. “As such, DEA cannot provide further information about this case at this time.” He added that additional information will be released as the case reaches complete adjudication.
The ‘Taylor Organization’
Authorities began investigating a large-scale methamphetamine trafficking organization operating in Jackson, Macon and Swain counties last November.
According to the affidavit, the ring has been called the “Taylor Organization,” after Michael James Taylor, who owns and operates Budget Inn of Sylva on U.S. 441 South. Guzzo alleges Taylor is the head of the drug trafficking operation.
“Taylor obtains large quantities of crystal methamphetamine from sources of supply in South Carolina, some of which are then delivered to North Carolina by, among others, Pedro Avila Serrano,” reads the affidavit. “Taylor and the members of the Taylor Organization often conduct their narcotics trafficking activities at and/or out of Taylor’s motel.”
Complete with an enforcer, low and mid-level dealers and a drug courier for the organization, the case has all the trappings of an organized crime entity.
Early in the investigation, authorities reportedly infiltrated the organization by utilizing confidential informants, controlled buys, onsite audio and video surveillance. Solid investigation work resulted in court-ordered wire-taps and ultimately authorities seized controlled substances and money.
In the fall of 2010, investigators reportedly obtained their first confidential informant, who was reportedly part of the organization’s dealings. The informant, like later informants in the case, agreed to work with investigators in order to receive a “favorable disposition in his/her pending case.” Some informants, according to the affidavit, received monetary compensation for their efforts.
From the start of the investigation, the informant told authorities that they started out purchasing an “eight ball” (3.5 grams) of meth from McGillivray earlier that summer, and had moved up to buying an ounce of the drug every other day at approximately $1,900 per purchase. The informant alleged that McGillivray told them that she received as much as eight ounces per week from Taylor, via his wife.
On Nov. 29, investigators staged their first controlled purchase of the drug through the informant, by buying 12.8 grams from McGillivray at her Highlands residence. During the operation, the informant was outfitted with a hidden voice recording device. After the operation, authorities were later able to determine that only 5.3 grams of the substance was actual methamphetamine after lab analysis.
As the investigation progressed, a second individual became an informant in the case at the beginning of 2011, after being arrested for a narcotics-related offense. The offense was later dismissed, according to reports.
In exchange for a monetary reward, the second informant, accompanied by an undercover agent, purchased 6.8 grams of methamphetamine from Payne at Taylor’s motel. It was later revealed that only 2.8 grams of the substance was actually methamphetamine.
Two similar operations were conducted by investigators in February with the same informant, yielding similar results. In addition, the informant’s cell phone was monitored by investigators to further track Taylor’s meth distribution. Using this method, investigators were also able to identify Hargett as a Taylor Organization dealer.
By spring, investigators had recruited two more informants and conducted numerous controlled purchases of the drug—all of which resulted in analyses proving that roughly only half of the substance was actually methamphetamine.
After buying 34.5 grams of meth from Watkins at his residence in Bryson City at the end of March, with the help of a fourth informant, investigators were able to secure an electronic wire-tap of Hargett’s cell phone.
Later that month, a fifth informant began working with investigators. The informant reportedly admitted to authorities that since the beginning of the year, the informant had been delivering up to three ounces of meth to the various Taylor retailers in Macon, Jackson and Swain counties “at the direction of Taylor.”
According to reports, the fifth informant explained to authorities that Taylor’s biggest customers were from the Greenville, S.C. area. One customer, simply identified as “C.H.” in the affidavit, was arrested on June 17 in Anderson County, S.C. for possession of approximately 886.9 grams of methamphetamine that belonged to Taylor.
The same informant also alleged that Estes was Taylor’s “enforcer.”According to the informant, Estes protected Taylor’s drug interests, and began his work after being released from prison for first degree burglary, robbery with a dangerous weapon and first degree kidnapping.
On June 17, Hargett’s wire taps revealed that Taylor directed Hargett to drive one of his vehicles from South Carolina to Franklin. That evening, authorities were able to stop the vehicle as it was driving through Highlands. During a consensual search, investigators located approximately 5.8 ounces of meth concealed beneath the vehicle in a toolbox that was magnetized to the vehicle.
On June 29, investigators observed a meth transaction between Hargett and Frady near the Dillsboro Huddle House. Authorities attempted to conduct a traffic stop on Frady’s vehicle, but he refused to stop at which point a high speed chase ensued. Ultimately, officers were able to stop Frady, and recovered 6.9 grams of meth in his possession.
Other Taylor Organization dealers were discovered as the investigation continued into the summer months.
In early July, investigators reportedly were able to ascertain that Hargett was trafficking roughly six ounces of meth from Taylor’s motel to Watkins’ Bryson residence at the behest of Taylor. After obtaining a search warrant, authorities seized approximately 103.4 grams of meth from the residence, along with $3,856.
The investigation came to a head in mid-July when the fifth informant contacted investigators and advised that Taylor’s drug runner Pedro Serrano was en route to the Taylor Motel from Greenville, and was carrying a large amount of meth. After the tip, investigators located Serrano travelling on Interstate 26 toward Sylva at a high rate of speed.
After being stopped by a marked vehicle, Serrano consented to a search of the vehicle, where authorities found 513 grams of meth in a plastic container inside a black trash bag next to a child’s safety seat. The vehicle was later determined to be registered in Taylor’s name.
After Serrano’s arrest, investigators examined his cell phone and found numerous calls and texts to Taylor. “One such telephone number continued to attempt to contact Serrano’s cellular telephone on multiple occasions subsequent to Serrano’s arrest.” According to Guzzo, he then answered the phone in Spanish. A voice on the phone then answered, “Hey man, where you at?,” according to his affidavit.
As prosecutors with the U.S. District Attorney’s office prepare for court, further charges may be brought against the suspects. More details on the case will be reported as the case progresses.