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State, local partnership busts major drug rings

Prosecutors pressed Monday for continued funding for a program they say disrupted two major drug supply lines and prevented 300 kilos of cocaine and heroin from entering eastern North Carolina.

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WILMINGTON, N.C. — State and federal prosecutors Monday pressed newly elected officials to keep funding a program they say dismantled two major drug supply lines from Atlanta and Houston to New Hanover County.

The program enabled a two-year undercover investigation that kept 300 kilos of cocaine and heroin – worth an estimated $6.6 million – off the streets and got sentences for 11 drug dealers totaling 1,861 months – or 155 years' jail time.

"Drugs fuel the engine of crime," Benjamin David, district attorney for New Hanover and Pender counties, said at a news conference.

Under the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force program, U.S. attorneys deputize local assistant district attorneys. The ADAs then have access to federal tools used to track drug cases, following them through multiple jurisdictions.

The goal of the program is to track drugs back to their source and disrupt the supply chain.

"We are not fighting a war on drugs, so much as a war on drug dealers," David said.

A $200,000 grant from the Governor's Crime Commission enabled New Hanover County to be among the first to participate in the program. George E.B. Holding, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, tapped ADA Timothy Severo as a special assistant U.S. attorney.

Neither President-elect Barack Obama nor Gov. Beverly Perdue has indicated they would cut off funding for the program, prosecutors said. However, given the economic times and budget crises, they wanted to highlight the program's successes and press for it to be continued, prosecutors said.

"We're putting together successful programs that are bearing and will continue to bear fruit," Holding said.

"The results ... speak for themselves. We must continue this partnership," David said.

In 2006, Severo and other authorities launched the Seven Day Ground operation to go after a drug supplier in Wilmington, Lacy Tate. Tips led authorities to Tate's supplier, Shazhad Mathur, in Atlanta.

When Mathur stopped working with Tate, Tate turned to another supplier, Gratiniano Castillo, 41, in Houston, Texas. Castillo, an illegal immigrant, was responsible for importing at least 151 kilos of cocaine into eastern North Carolina between 2005 and July 2007, prosecutors said.

South Carolina law enforcement officers apprehended Castillo during a March 2007 traffic stop in Dillon. They found $295,890 in duct-taped bundles of cash in the car. Castillo offered it to officers as a bribe to let him go free, but they declined, prosecutors said.

Louisiana State Police also helped crack the drug ring, stopping cars delivering cocaine to North Carolina.

Tate and Mathur were also arrested and convicted, and all three received lengthy prison sentences – 40 years for Castillo and 20 years each for Tate and Mathur.

During the operation against Tate, authorities seized 17 kilos of cocaine, 3 ounces of heroin, five firearms and $312,000 in U.S. currency. The last prosecution wrapped up Jan. 6.

"The state and federal partnership we have forged and the police-prosecutor team approach ... have made justice in our area more swift and severe," David said.


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