DRUG RING BUSTED
Cops: Cocaine deals netted $1M a week: Manalapan couple, five others charged
By Michelle Sahn • STAFF WRITER • June 3, 2008
MANALAPAN — Vicente and Chantal Esteves were a young couple who kept to themselves, neighbors and authorities said. Their multimillion-dollar Manalapan home featured a 30-seat home theater and backyard volleyball court. Inside their walk-in closet, he had about 100 Rolex watches, and she had boxes and boxes of Prada shoes that cost $500 to $1,000 a pair, authorities said.
The sign at the end of their wrought-iron gated driveway warned the entire site was protected by video surveillance.
But undercover police were conducting their own surveillance, and last week, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office arrested the couple and busted a drug trafficking ring that smuggled more than 1,000 kilos of cocaine into the country each month and netted a million dollars a week, authorities said.
Authorities arrested the Manalapan couple and five Middlesex County residents, and seized about $2 million in cash and 150 pounds of cocaine, worth roughly $2 million on the street, Monmouth County Prosecutor Luis Valentin said Monday at a news conference held in Freehold.
All seven defendants were charged with conspiracy to distribute a controlled dangerous substance. The Manalapan couple, along with Mark Edwards, Michael Lopez, and Hector Rodriguez, also were charged with financial facilitation of criminal activity — commonly known as money laundering.
If convicted, the conspiracy charge carries a maximum 10 year sen-tence, while the money laundering charge can result in up to 20 years in prison.
The investigation, dubbed Operation Unbounded, began 14 months ago, after the DEA received a tip about an organization based in Monmouth County that also operated in Middlesex County.
Last week’s arrests dismantled the drug ring that smuggled cocaine from Mexico and Colombia into the United States to be sold in places including New Jersey, Georgia and Florida, said Gerard P. McAleer, the special agent in charge of the DEA’s New Jersey division.
“This is truly a success story,” he said of the investigation.
Once that cocaine was brought into the country, the drug money was laundered, he said.
Esteves’ neighbors said they thought the man who lived at the corner of Tennent and Taylors Mills roads was a building or plumbing contractor. The county prosecutor would only describe him as the owner of two companies “associated with the transfer of real property,” but those companies were primarily set up to launder money, Valentin said.
Esteves, 35, ran his operation out of his home, relying on the beauty of suburbia to hide his criminal activity, said McAleer. The drugs were not seized in the home — they were confiscated elsewhere, authorities said.
The seven people involved in the ring also were careful to avoid carrying both cocaine and large amounts of cash at the same time, according to the prosecutor.
The first arrest was made on April 2, when an individual — whose name was not released — was traveling to meet one of the defendants, Hector Rodriguez, at a home in the Old Bridge area, the prosecutor said. That person — whose identity is undisclosed — had about $600,000 in cash, and a search of that person’s home in Hackensack yielded another $100,000, Valentin said.
The bulk of the arrests were made last week, starting Thursday. Besides the Esteves, undercover officers also arrested Alfurquan Barringer aka Alfurquan Maing, 34, of South River; Cesar Robert Cabrera-Cepeda, 39, of Old Bridge; Edwards, 39, of Metuchen; and Lopez, 35, and Rodriguez, 40, both of Perth Amboy.
Vicente Esteves was the leader of the organization, and he coordinated the drug smuggling and the collection of drug money, said Valentin. Chantal Esteves, 30, communicated with the organization’s associates on her husband’s behalf when he was traveling outside of the United States, the prosecutor said.
The cocaine was brought into the U.S. through commercial carriers at several airports, including Newark, Valentin said. Upon arrival, the drugs were removed and transported by ground, while cash was sent back to the supplier countries, he said. He would not provide further details, but said the ring was not using drug mules.
He said Rodriguez served as the lieutenant of the organization, directing the distribution of drugs and drug money, while Cabrera-Cepeda and Maing primarily transported drugs, and Lopez and Edwards generally transported money.
Edwards had about $100,000 on him when he was taken into custody Friday, aboard a commercial flight as it prepared to take off from Newark Liberty International Airport for Miami, said Valentin.
In Manalapan, in the front of the Esteves’ Taylors Mills Road house, arborvitae trees formed a high privacy hedge. A wrought-iron gate blocked entry to the rest of the property, but last week, the driveway was full of unmarked police cars, a neighbor said.
Police seized more than $1 million worth of jewelry from the home, including the Rolex watches, gold and diamonds, said Valentin.
Chantal Esteves had so many pairs of Prada that she apparently used photos taped to the shoe boxes to keep track of the pricey footwear, authorities said.
Authorities said they also found more than a dozen plasma televisions in the home, which also had a dance floor with a DJ booth, a weight room, a game room and a home theater with high-end equipment and stadium seating.
Outside, price tags were still on patio furniture, including several $1,000 chaise lounges, authorities said. There was also top-of-the-line cookware in the back yard, which included a pool and pool house, authorities said.
Neighbors said a few weeks ago, the couple hosted a party that lasted into the early morning hours with music that could be heard from about a block away.
“I thought it was Raceway Park,” said one neighbor, who did not want to be identified.
After the couple was arrested, their baby and an older child were turned over to a family member, authorities said.
Bail was set at $10 million for Vicente Esteves and $5 million for his wife; the others are being held on bails ranging from $200,000 to $3 million. All bails are cash only and require source hearings, so before any of the defendants can be bailed out of jail, they must prove to a judge that the bail money is not drug money.
McAleer spoke of the partnerships his agency has with local and county law enforcement. It was that teamwork that led to last week’s bust of a ring that spanned several countries, he said.
“We will follow the traffickers wherever they go,” said McAleer.
The investigation was conducted by the DEA’s New Jersey Division Task Force in conjunction with the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office.
They received help from the New Jersey State Police, the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, and Manalapan and Hackensack police.
The investigation is continuing, and anyone with information about it is asked to call Capt. Brian Rubino of the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office at (800) 533-7443.