Federal investigation snares 7 with ties to drug, human smuggling in Whatcom County

Seven people are in federal custody after a two-year investigation allegedly tied them to a multimillion-dollar drug- and human-smuggling ring based in Whatcom County.

Federal prosecutors unsealed their case this week against the seven defendants: Maninder Singh, Puneet Singh, Karen Marx, Neil Marx, Alex Garza, Michael S. Smith and Tasha Parsons.

They made their initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Seattle Thursday, Sept. 16.

Using wiretaps, controlled buys, surveillance, and other tactics, federal agents compiled evidence to obtain a grand jury indictment against five of the defendants for allegedly conspiring to smuggle and distribute marijuana, Ecstasy and BZP, a drug similar to Ecstasy, into the United States from Canada.

Two other men, Victor Villarreal and Roberto Inda III, were included in that indictment, which was obtained in August.

In a separate complaint filed Thursday, prosecutors charged Maninder Singh and Karen and Neil Marx with smuggling Indian nationals into the U.S. from Canada by taking them through Peace Arch Park in Blaine, according to the complaint.

On Sept. 5, U.S. Border Patrol agents observed Karen and Neil Marx meet with a group of five people at the park and then leave with three of them. They got into the Marxes' car and drove away but were later stopped by another agent in Blaine.

The three people in the car were Indian nationals who had flown into Toronto in July but had no documents that would allow them to be in the U.S. legally. They were taken into custody.

Karen and Neil Marx were not arrested that day, but agents listened to phone calls made between Karen Marx and Maninder Singh about the stop, which provided them evidence to support that Marx and Singh were conspiring with contacts in Canada and India to smuggle people into the U.S.

Based on other intercepted phone conversations, agents believed Singh was paid $4,500 for every person smuggled into the U.S., and that the Sept. 5 incident was not an isolated one, but rather part of a larger criminal enterprise.

In early 2008, agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency began investigating the criminal activities that Maninder Singh and his son, Puneet, allegedly organized from an apartment they rented in the 1300 block of Lattimore Road.

In 2008, controlled buys of Ecstasy pills were orchestrated by Inda and were conducted in the presence of Puneet Singh, who was believed to be the supplier, according to an affidavit provided by a DEA agent.

On Jan. 28, 2009, U.S. Border Patrol agents interrupted two attempts to smuggle large quantities of Ecstasy and BZP into Whatcom County from Canada.

Agents pursued one vehicle from the border to an area near Ferndale, where the driver abandoned it. About 100,000 Ecstasy pills, worth $1.2 million, were found in the trunk, and a police dog tracked the driver to Inda's house, although no one was arrested.

That same night near Sumas, agents stopped a car driven by Richard S. Pacheco that contained about 120,000 BZP pills worth $1.4 million. Pacheco admitted to smuggling the drugs for Maninder and Puneet Singh.

Pacheco has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing; his cooperation is likely to get him a reduced sentence, according to the affidavit.

Smith, Villarreal, Garza and Parsons were tied to the Singh enterprise through controlled buys and attempted purchases of Ecstasy, BZP and marijuana, and through traffic stops, surveillance and intercepted phone calls.