SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – More than a dozen defendants have been charged in Operation Apex, a multi-agency law enforcement crackdown on drug trafficking and illegal wildlife trade.
Thursday morning officials with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service met to discuss a 37-page indictment against the Wu transnational criminal organization for allegedly engaging in wildlife trafficking, shark finning, drug trafficking and money laundering.
“Millions and millions in cash, millions and millions in gold, millions and millions in diamonds, tens of thousands of illegal plants and that was a one day snapshot in what we believe to be a decade long conspiracy,” explained Bobby Christine, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia.
Officials say the crimes took place in the United States, including the Southern District of Georgia, and in Hong Kong, Mexico, Canada, and elsewhere as early as 2010.
The indictment alleges the conspirators would deposit bulk cash from illegal activities — including wildlife and drug trafficking — into third-party business accounts that dealt in gold, precious metals and jewels.
“You have to have a product that is legitimate, that the drug cartels are looking to use to purchase whether they are sold at a discount, or inflated discount or wrong invoice to jack up the price so you don’t have to actually transfer money from country to country. you can do it on the books and on legitimate loads,” explained Robert Murphy, Special agent in charge, DEA Atlanta division. “This shows the extent that drug traffickers and drug trafficking infiltrate every criminal organization, whatever they can come up, whatever they can do. The whole goal is to get money legitimized, how do they get the money into the banking system, and appear to make it look legitimate.”
Operation Apex charges 12 defendants and two businesses with mail and wire fraud conspiracy; conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute controlled substances; and money laundering conspiracy:
- Serendipity Solutions LLC, of San Bruno, Calif.;
- Phoenix Fisheries LLC, of Southport, Fla.;
- Terry Xing Zhao Wu, 45, of Burlingame, Calif.;
- Natalie Ye Man Chan Wu, 38, of Burlingame, Calif.;
- Woonjin Lam, 43, of San Francisco;
- Anthony Wu, 24, of San Francisco;
- Billy Chen, 61, of Walnut, Calif.;
- Ying Le Pang, 47, of San Lorenzo, Calif.;
- Mark Leon Harrison, 59, of Southport, Fla.;
- Heather Huong Ngoc Luu, 46, of Westminster, Calif.;
- Kevin Chinh Nguyen, 40, of Tucker, Ga.;
- Elias Samuel Castellanos, 54, of Scottsdale, Ariz., and,
- Terry Louis Shook, 56, of Grosse Pointe Park, Mich.
The charges carry potential penalties of up to life in federal prison, where there is no parole.
Agents seized more than $3.9 million from multiple bank accounts; about $3 million in gold, silver and other precious metals and $1 million in diamonds; approximately 18,000 marijuana plants and 34.5 lbs. of processed marijuana; and multiple firearms during the defendants’ arrests and searches of their homes.
Agents also documented the harvest of more than six tons of shark fins and seized 18 totoaba fish bladders, both considered Asian delicacies.
“Shark finning is the process of where a shark is caught, its fins are cut and its live body is then thrown overboard,” said Aurelia Skipwith, Director, US Fish and Wildlife Service. “The shark then drowns while bleeding into the water, which attracts more sharks.”
Totoaba fish bladders are harvested illegally from the endangered species. Harvesting shark fins involves catching the animals, cutting off their fins and throwing them back into the ocean to die of their injury. Certain species of sharks are protected wildlife under federal and state law to ensure their continued sustainability.
“It’s a sad day when not even the sharks in the ocean are safe from the greed of criminal organizations,” said acting Special Agent in Charge Robert Hammer, who oversees Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) operations in Georgia and Alabama. “HSI Atlanta is proud to have been a part of this operation and to work alongside our federal, state, and local partners to protect our communities and oceans.”
Marine life advocates have praised the operation and the protection of our waterways and sea creatures.
“This is yet another example of how the illegal wildlife trade plays a part in organized crime. This case also makes clear that statewide bans on the sale and trade of shark fins, while a step in the right direction, leave holes in the system that perpetrators can and do exploit. That’s why we need to put an end to the shark fin trade in the United States once and for all by passing the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act in the Senate,” said Oceana’s Federal Policy Manager Ariana Spawn.
Agencies conducting the investigation include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Investigations Unit, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Customs and Border Protection, and Homeland Security Investigations, in conjunction with state and local agencies including the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.